Related: Friendship Is Countersignaling
When I was in high school, I was terrified of people asking me to do things with them. Usually they were things I didn’t like, and I’d want to say no, but I’d be worried I was offending them, or that I was looking like this total loser who was never willing to do anything fun.
The situation got much worse if it went on to personal questions, because I might have to reveal I wasn’t as cool as everyone else. Like if I kept refusing invications to do stuff, and someone asked what I did like to do in my spare time, I would have to admit it was a combination of playing Civilization 2, modding Civilization 2, and posting on Civilization 2-related forums. Or if someone asked me who my friends were, I might have to admit I didn’t have very many. I came up with so many clever excuses for avoiding these sorts of conversations, and so many mumbled half-answers that managed to accurately communicate “go away go away go away I can’t think of a non-scary answer right now”.
Meanwhile, now I encounter the same sorts of issues at work and I usually handle it like this:
CO-WORKER: Hey, we’re going to go golfing after work? You want to join us?
ME: Oh, thanks, but I don’t like doing things.
CO-WORKER: Really? Nothing? What do you do in your free time?
ME: Really. Nothing. I sit alone in my room all day quietly.
CO-WORKER: You’ve got to have friends!
ME: Oh, no. I don’t have friends. That sounds waaaay too complicated.
CO-WORKER: But there must be some stuff you like!
ME: Nope! Sorry, I hate everything!
The weird thing is that this has actually made me kind of popular, a combination of people respecting my honesty and assuming that I’m covering up for some kind of super fascinating life I’m not telling them about.
Part of me wishes I could tell 16 year old me about this and save him years of terrified mumbling and phobia of social interactions.
Another part is pretty sure it wouldn’t help. The only reason I’m psychologically able to make this work is that I feel okay about myself socially. I have a lot of people I know and like, I feel like I have developed some decent social skills, and the people at my work know I’m not a total loser because I do good patient care a lot of the time. I feel like if all the evidence (both internal as in my own thoughts, and external as in my friends’ observations) pointed to me actually being a loser, then me giving loser-ish answers to questions would be taken a very different way and would not be socially possible for me.
In other words, I am able to countersignal social skills and being an okay person, but only because I have, through noncountersignally methods, brought myself to a place where me countersignaling was more likely than taking things totally straight.
This reminded me of the oft-maligned dating advice to “just be yourself”.
A lot of people have analyzed this in a lot of different ways, usually not very kindly.
My thought is that being yourself is a form of countersignaling. If you are able to conspicuously not make any effort to impress your date, but still seem like an okay human being – like someone who knows they can afford to not impress their date, rather than someone who’s too unimpressive to impress them even when they’re trying – then being yourself is a pretty good strategy.
On the other hand, using this as actual dating advice for people who are bad at dating is a terrible idea. It would be like me telling 16-year-old-me to use the “I sit in a room all day and do nothing” set of conversational responses. I would be eaten alive.
Depending on how many layers of signaling/countersignaling there are on a given topic, the appropriate advanced-level advice might be suicide for beginners, and vice versa.