This is the second in a five-part series. The first is here.
If, like those "talented" kids who grow up lazily shielding the dubious glory of their intelligence, you buy your own hype, you might come to believe some weird things. If other people bow before the awesome power of your brain, for instance, then what could you ever stand to gain from interacting with other people? They're worshiping you, after all. You're a god to them! The assumption that you only need your projects, your own brain and maybe the friendship of the 99th percentile most like-minded and demographically similar people in your region.
I'm reminded of the Five Geek Social Fallacies, though those don't kick in until social interaction begins; this nips it in the bud. Yet it's still very much (though not exclusively) a geek problem. I've written here before about the geek tendency to simulate social competence in the same way they'd learn chess: figure out the rules, form basic strategies and memorize effective responses to recurrent situations. Hence the number of sites about how to make small talk.
The paradox in this is its fatal flaw: people seem to value your engagement with them to the extent that you're not following some operating procedure, much less instructions off a web page. Even the hopefuls committing these guidelines to memory must realize how weirded-out they'd be if someone were to ask them about their lives because about.com said to "ask them about their lives." The idea is that nobody needs to tell you to ask, because you're supposed to be interested in the first place. But it never occurs to some people — geeks, anointed children, shut-ins, what have you — to be interested in the first place.
This is only natural if, in your life so far, other people's primary function was to be impressed by you. In this worldview, your only hope to win humanity's favor is to drill down as far as possible into the soil of your brain, your projects and your like-mindeds and present to the world an image of brilliance. Hence, I suspect, the strong temptation to say effectively nothing on the net but: "Here's a thing I did. Here's another thing I did. Here's yet another thing I did." As a kid, when I was still burning my energy (such as I burned it at all) jealously guarding my smartness trophy, I didn't feel like I could spare the bandwidth to be interested in other people. It would've been like asking someone desperately flapping his limbs in the middle of the ocean to get to know the water he's treading.
In an interview with Robert Birnbaum, Douglas Coupland said about his undimming fascination with everything around him, "I used to worry that my interest in the world would just wear off one day. It’s a beautiful place and we are lucky to be alive. We really are." I've written here before how someone's interestingness usually equals their interestedness. One of the gems in my meta-MetaFiltered advice, I thought, was: "When you talk to people, let them spend the bulk of the time talking about themselves. The more they talk about themselves, the more interesting they'll think you are."
This all comes back to Dale Carnegie, doesn't it? I somehow happened on his immortal How to Win Friends and Influence People in high school and, despite the book's dopey aspirational title, found that its ideas made so much sense I could hardly think directly about them. (Some say the same about evolutionary theory, but I didn't read that.) Paul Graham wrote, "When a friend recommended this book, I couldn't believe he was serious. But he insisted it was good, so I read it, and he was right. It deals with the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people's point of view, instead of thinking only of yourself."
One of Carnegie's oft-repeated dicta is that you should "take a genuine interest in other people." This principle's sub-points include listening hard, urging your interlocutors to talk about themselves, etc. I seem to recall examples of an everyman complimenting a postal worker on his head of hair and a raise-seeking employee asking his boss about his stamp collection. Carnegie's critics read this as advocacy of the sleazy fakery of interest in other people; "genuine," they claim, is a mere figleaf. But geeks, often self-styled Holden Caulfields, seem to get disproportionately het up about honesty and consistency. I think that, in their minds, asking someone about their stamp collection couldn't be anything but dishonest, since it's not, like, whatever sub-sub-branch of robotics is their own passion.
But here's the thing: effective or no, I doubt Carnegie was all for this kind of charlatanism. I think he used "take a genuine interest in other people" to really mean "take a genuine interest in other people." It wasn't about putting on a show or following a set of instructions. It was about something much, much harder.
Stay tuned for the thrilling Part III of The Plight of the Social Maladroit, tomorrow on The War on Mediocrity.