Newsletter #10: The International Man of Mystery
Welcome back to the Masculinist, the monthly newsletter on the intersection of Christianity and masculinity.
Happy Father’s Day
Today is Father’s Day. I’m very grateful to my father for all he has done for me. I have a great dad. It’s very comforting to know that even today if I ever need him, he’d be there. Even more important, he’s someone I have always admired and respected. Raised in a rural environment by parents who completed 6th and 8th grade, Dad served four years in the Marines and in the Vietnam War, where he received the Purple Heart and was classified as partially disabled due to injuries he received. Working part-time, he became the first member of his family to graduate from college, getting his degree from a local Indiana University regional campus. He spent most of his life working in manufacturing management for small plants. Like many men of his generation, he could build an entire house himself, do his own car maintenance, etc. He was simply competent at doing the things a man is called to do. I am fortunate to have him as my father. Be sure to let your father know how appreciated he is this weekend.
A Follow-Up on Awareness of Future Life Change
A couple of installments back I talked about how people don’t really develop the ability to understand their future story arc in life until around 35. Before that, we understand that we have changed radically in the past, but while we might intellectually understand that we’ll be different in the future, we don’t get it in our gut that these major changes will continue on as we age.
Someone emailed me this interview with Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams on how identity ages. McAdams notes, “Autobiographical reasoning gets far more sophisticated in general as you age.” It’s an interesting piece. He doesn’t directly talk about my thesis, but everything he says is 100% consistent with it.
Encouraging More Marriages in the Church
In the Masculinist, I alternate issues between cultural critique and practical improvement tips. It’s very easy to tear things down. But it’s as or more important to build up. Nobody wants to be around negative thinking all the time. That’s why I have a positive agenda. That’s in part because I truly and honestly am bullish on the future.
There are a ton of problems in our world today, but that also means we’ve got great opportunities to improve. Positive change is not easy at either the personal or organizational level, but I am absolutely convinced it’s possible.
One of those changes is encouraging more marriages and dealing with the “frustrated singles” problem.
A few months ago a man in my church said to me, “I can’t understand why these single guys aren’t pursuing all these cute amazing girls in our church.” And a 30-year-old single woman in church recently complained, “I’ve dated non-Christian guys and it’s been a disaster. But none of the guys in the church are doing anything.”
This is pretty typical of the frustrations I hear from people. So I decided to provide some ways in which we can improve on this situation to help promote more relationships and ultimately marriages.
A few installments back, I described some drills that I did personally to help build confidence. One of them is to try to establish and maintain eye contact for several seconds with everyone around us, on the streets, in the store, etc. This is harder than it sounds. The second is to practice striking up a very brief conversation with everyone we can, just to exchange some pleasantries. Say something to the cashier in the restaurant. Compliment the person next to you on the subway about a cool piece of clothing. This isn’t about women per se. It’s about building social confidence and learning to deal with the inevitable awkwardness that will arise. If you can establish and maintain eye contact with someone you don’t know, then strike up a conversation with him, that will pay big dividends in every area of life, including professionally.
I also said women need to do their part by signaling their interest to men they’d like to meet. The simplest way to do this is to establish eye contact and smile. And people who are already married should be looking to try to make introductions. I recommend against directly setting people up on dates, but rather just making the intro and privately encouraging the guy to take it from there.
Being “Transparent” Is a Bad Idea
The next question would be: once you are talking to a girl, what do you say?
I’ll be direct: virtually everything that the church teaches about dating is wrong, and often actively damaging to boot. I tried it and it didn’t work. Don’t repeat my mistake. (Keep in mind that the Bible says nothing about dating, so when pastors talk about it, they are doing so as life coaches, not authoritative Christian teachers).
I’ll expand on this over time, but today I want to refute one of the central pillars of church teaching about relationships: transparency.
“Transparent” is a tier-one Christian buzzword. The idea is to be open, honest, and directly communicate what we are thinking and feeling and what is going on in our lives. To see some exhortations to transparency in relationships, look here, here, here, here, here, and here. Here’s just one excerpt from a piece on the Christian Mingle dating web site:
Our relationship is so meaningful because not only does a long distance relationship teach you patience, but also to communicate. Communication is the very foundation of relationships. In most relationships today, the focus is more on the physical and less on spiritual and physiological things, but when you can talk about everything and are transparent with one another, a more meaningful relationship is built. [emphasis added]
Obviously it’s important to disclose material facts about ourselves at an appropriate time. Being dishonest is never appropriate. But this idea of erring on the side of transparency is not just wrong, it’s completely counterproductive – at least at the early stages.
If you don’t believe me, believe science. Psychologist Robert Cialdini is the “godfather of persuasion.” He wrote the famous book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which is an absolute must-read. He was also one of the key advisors behind President Obama’s successful 2012 campaign.
In Cialdini’s new book Pre-Suasion, he relates a study that directly shines a light on this matter:
Perhaps even more bewildering at first glance are findings regarding college women’s attraction to certain good-looking young men. The women participated in an experiment in which they knew that attractive male students (whose photographs and biographies they could see) had been asked to evaluate them on the basis of their Facebook information. The researchers wanted to know which of these male raters the women, in turn, would prefer at a later time. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the guys who had rated them highest. Instead, it was the men whose ratings remained yet unknown to the women.
During the experiment, the men who kept popping up in the women’s minds were those whose ratings hadn’t been revealed, confirming the researchers’ view that when an important outcome is unknown to people, “they can hardly think of anything else.” And because, as we know, regular attention to something makes it seem more worthy of attention, the women’s repeated refocusing on those guys made them appear the most attractive.
In other words, when a woman doesn’t know something about you, it actually causes her to focus on it in her mind, which means she’s focusing on you. And as many studies have shown, simply focusing on something elevates its importance – and in this case, increases its attractiveness. Meaning your attractiveness.
To capture a woman’s attention, you’re better off being a bit mysterious. Think Clint Eastwood in those Spaghetti Westerns or any number of other film characters. If you are “transparent” and directly tell her everything about yourself, this will downgrade your attractiveness.
This is actually one of the ways I drew my now wife in while we were dating. Here’s a summary version of an actual conversation we had:
Katy: Aaron M. Renn. What does the “M” stand for?
Me: Mystery, International Man Of.
Katy: [Laughs]. No really, what does it stand for?
Me: You’ll have to guess.
Katy: Tell me!
Me: You have to try to guess first. [I meant this – no guess, no name]
Me: Nope. Guess again
Me: Wrong again.
Me: Ding, ding.
This sounds trivial, but as with establishing and holding eye contact, it can be surprisingly difficult, especially if she tries to simply make you tell her. As I like to remind myself, she doesn’t owe me anything – but I don’t owe her anything either. She’s not entitled to information about me any more than I’m entitled to demand she tells me things.
Now you’re probably saying to yourself, “But Aaron, that’s manipulative!” Well, I’d ask you, what’s buying her a dozen red roses? What’s dressing in your most stylish outfit and taking her to a hot new restaurant? What’s buying her a ticket to Hamilton? What’s sending her a card with a poem about how great she is? What is making sure to open the car door for her? Aren’t those manipulative?
The truth is, every guy has a theory about what will impress women and is trying his best to put it into practice. The real question is whether your theory is right or not. The transparency theory (itself an explicit church taught “technique” and thus arguably manipulative in its own right) is clearly false in terms of generating attraction.
Consider the classic question, “Do I look fat in this dress?” Even the biggest idiot knows not to be transparent with that one. Not because the intent is to deceive or manipulate, but rather because that’s not the actual question she’s asking. As many pop-psych books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus tell us, men and women have different communications styles. Men tend to be more direct, women more indirect. So when you operate in a male communications mode like directly conveying information transparently such as in, “What’s the M stand for? Michael”, you are failing to communicate properly to a woman, and failing to understand the basic drivers of attraction.
What we are really talking about here is “emotional intelligence” – and as we know all too well, a lot of men don’t have much when it comes to talking to women.
To give you another illustration of how this works, I ordered a foam roller from Amazon and had the unopened box laying on my living room floor. Katy came over and wondered what was in it. I told her she could try to figure it out. She picked it up, shook it, etc. She couldn’t figure it out.
By the next time she came over, I had unpacked it and strategically put the foam roller on top of my door frame pull-up bar which was highly visible when you walk in the door. Sure enough, she saw it and made the connection. And she was excited to figure it out.
You’ll notice, by the way, that she actually did find out all the information she wanted. So ultimately there was transparency, just delivered in a more effective manner.
Now, is this something that still works 25 years after you’ve been married? I don’t know. I want to be clear about where my expertise with this is. All I can tell you is that this is how I approached dating, and I got a lot better results than I did with the transparency approach, I can tell you that.
I’m still keeping it up though. We were in bed reading the other night and she asked me, “What are you reading?” I said, “Letter 43.” The next night I said, “Time to read Letter 52.” We’ll see if she can figure out what I’m reading (Seneca’s Letters).
Now I’m not claiming this will turn lead into gold. In that study I cited above, the men in question were all good looking. But it will help you put your best foot forward. And again, be warned. As with establishing firm eye contact with people on the street, this is tougher in practice than it sounds. It’s sure to be awkward the first time you try it.
Right now you may be asking yourself whether or not my wife reads this list. I told her she’s very welcome to read it if she wants, but I recommend against it. Because who wants to know how the magician does his tricks? She hasn’t yet started reading.
In the Culture
Like “transparency”, the importance of “self-esteem” is one of those things everybody knows that it turns out ain’t so. Apparently, the guy who put it on the map may have actually lied to make it happen, as reported with this book excerpt published in the Guardian. They flat out label the self-esteem movement “a con.”
As we sat and nibbled cheese, he picked up a thick book with a shiny red cover: The Social Importance Of Self-Esteem. This was the collected work of the University of California professors. He flicked through its pages, settling eventually on Smelser’s summary of the findings. “The news most consistently reported,” he read out loud, “is that the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent.”
This was a radically different conclusion from that fed to the public…. “They tried to hide it. They published a [positive] report before this one,” he said, tapping the red book, which deliberately “ignored and covered up” the science.
It was hard to believe that Vasco’s task force had been so rash as simply to invent the quote, the one that stated the findings were “positive and compelling”. What had really happened at that meeting in September 1988? I found the answer on an old audio cassette in the California state archives.
The sound was hissy and faint. What I heard, though, was clear enough. It was a recording of Smelser’s presentation to Vasco’s task force at that meeting in El Rancho Inn, and it was nowhere near as upbeat as the task force had claimed. I listened as he announced the professors’ work to be complete but worryingly mixed. He talked through a few areas, such as academic achievement, and said: “These correlational findings are really pretty positive, pretty compelling.” This, then, was the quote the task force used. They’d sexed it up a little for the public. But they had completely omitted what he said next: “In other areas, the correlations don’t seem to be so great, and we’re not quite sure why. And we’re not sure, when we have correlations, what the causes might be.”
If you aren’t questioning a lot of the “truths” you’ve been told by society that has the same facile appearance as self-esteem or transparency, you need to get woke.
Art of Manliness: Should you live together before marriage? AoM surveys the research on the effects of pre-marital cohabitation. In short, the best you can hope for is a zero – and it might even hurt your marriage. McKay quotes one researcher who says flat out, “No positive contribution of cohabitation to marriage has ever been found.”
The Atlantic: Why are so many Millennials having children out of wedlock? “A few years ago, researchers published an eye-opening statistic: 57 percent of parents ages 26 to 31 were having kids outside of marriage. Who were these unwed Millennials and why were they forgoing the traditional structure of the American family?”
Working papers released in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017 told essentially the same story: Low-skilled men are working less and living at home more. Instead of working, they are playing video games. About three quarters of the increase in leisure time among men since 2000 has gone to gaming. Total time spent on computers, including game consoles, has nearly doubled.
You might think that this would be demoralizing. A life spent unemployed, living at home, without romantic prospects, playing digital time wasters does not sound particularly appealing on its face. Yet this group reports far higher levels of overall happiness than low-skilled young men from the turn of the 21st century. In contrast, self-reported happiness for older workers without college degrees fell during the same period. For low-skilled young women and men with college degrees, it stayed basically the same. A significant part of the difference comes down to what Hurst has called “innovations in leisure computer activities for young men.”
Daily Mail: What I’d give for a wolf-whistle now I’m 50.
Trust me, there is only one thing worse than attracting unwanted attention, and that’s attracting no attention at all. Even the most impeccably turned-out women find that, after a certain age, you practically have to send up a flare to get served at a busy bar. The worst part of it, though, is that, if anything, you feel happier and more comfortable in your skin than ever before. Certainly much more so than when you were young and gorgeous. That is the awful irony. Young women have it all, but don’t know it; older women know it all, but no longer have it. Somewhere in between, there’s a golden moment when it all comes together. But blink and you’ll miss it.
“‘They are better educated than previous generations and they were raised by baby boomers who lavished a lot of attention on their children,’ said Andrew Kohut [the director of the Pew Research Center.]” WRONGALONGADINGDONG. They’re not better educated, they just have more degrees. Were you smarter at 21 post-college than your Dad was at 21? And whatever the difference, was it worth the $50k-$200k he paid to get you it? No, but every parent of a high school kid I’ve talked to about this says the same thing: “I know, I know, but I just want her to get that piece of paper.” So work this out in your head: either this parent is a solitary genius who is the sole possessor of the knowledge that the college degree is merely a brand and not a mark of knowledge, or every employer in the world already knows this. So if we all agree the degree doesn’t mean anything close to what we are pretending it means, then what’s the point of piling on? Isn’t this technically a Ponzi scheme? There is no arguing with such parents, they’re not going to sacrifice their kid’s future by calling America’s bluff, sure, I get it. I am sympathetic. But these are parents who never thought it was wrong to force their kid into violin lessons because it would help them get into college. Did it work? Of course, it worked, but at what cost? Two generations of parents have knowingly fed the Ponzi scheme while simultaneously crushing their kids’ spirit.
– The Last Psychiatrist, “This Is Why The American Dream Is Out of Reach” (2010)