13 hints for deciding whether they really care or you are just being used
They’re buttering you up, which is nice…sort of. You like affirmation but not if it’s manipulation.
Do they just want sex? Are they just social climbers scrambling over you to get to your connections? Are they about to ask a big favor? Are they flattering you to get you to support rather than oppose them? How can you tell what motivates their sweet gestures?
You can’t just ask, “Do you really mean it?” They’ll say yes whether they mean it or not. And they might get offended. “How dare you question my motives?” Besides none of us know all of our motives, so they could say, “yes I mean it” without knowing that they don’t.
At core, you’re wondering whether you can trust them. The only thing as bad as gullibly trusting the untrustworthy is callously distrusting the trustworthy. You want to avoid both errors and for that you’d like a sure-fire formula for determining who really appreciates you and who is just playing you to get what they want.
Love is wonderful; being used is horrible. Alas, there is no sure-fire formula for distinguishing love and manipulation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better at predicting when affirmation is and isn’t to be trusted.
The first step is to step back from the present personal particulars to think broadly and neutrally about affirmation as a practical currency. As with other currencies, there’s supply of and demand for affirmation. Like money, affirmation can be used in exchange for all sorts of goods and services. Here are some reflections on affirmationomics the economics of affirmation:
- Hard vs. Soft Currencies: We have different rules for money and affirmation; business and friendship (including romantic love). In business, you track tightly who owes what money. In friendship, you track loosely.
- Double Entry: With both money and affirmation, we do double entry bookkeeping, in other words maintaining parallel registers that track each transaction as coming out of one account and into another. With money that’s obvious. It’s less obvious with affirmation. But think about it: A friend says, “Thanks. That was a big help” and we assume his affirming gratitude will translate into his willingness to help us in return. As such, it’s an accounts payable in his ledger and an accounts receivable in ours.
- Cooked books: Politeness and generosity compels us cook the books, hopefully in each other’s favor. To your friend’s “That was a big help,” you say, “Don’t even think about it,” implying that, out of generosity or politeness you’re not going to count it as accounts receivable.
- Overcooked books: Such soft, altruistic book-cooking can go too far. Despite your frequent reminders, your friend is very late returning something he borrowed and you say, “Awesome! Thank you!” and he says, “Glad I could be of help,” as though he did you a favor. Suddenly you start wondering whether he’s really a friend. Maybe politeness has gone too far and you should be more businesslike in your transactions with him. Maybe you have start keeping more accurate books to make sure you’re not being used.
- Affirmation ratchets: At first an affirmation is a delightful surprise, but soon it becomes an expectation. If, after each of your first times out together, you text your date to say, “That was awesome!” it’s a delight. If after a later date, you don’t write, you may disappoint expectations. Affirmations ratchet, which is why you’ll often see couples stuck in exaggerated, “I love you pookie/I love you more,” mutual affirmation cycles. They’ve ratcheted up to extreme affirmations and don’t know how to cool it down without disappointing each other’s expectations.
- Mutual Affirmation Society: Everything and everybody is awesome these days. We’ve ratcheted the whole culture up to where we can’t tell when the affirmations are real. But that doesn’t make our skepticism about it any more welcome. Instead in a pro-positivity culture like ours, expect lots of positivity peer pressure. “How dare you question my positivity?! You should just be positive back.”
- Pay it forward: We consider it naïve in business to pay money up front on loose faith that it will be paid back later. Sure we loan and invest money, but only when we’ve done our due diligence. With affirmation there’s lots of paying forward on faith. In part because…
- “Like” is cheap: It doesn’t cost you much to throw affirmations around like a spendthrift. Facebook “likes” are a perfect example. “Likes” are cheap affirmation taken to a one-click extreme. Think of how different our spending patterns would be if “likes” were budgeted, if you had to buy them, or could only spend as many as you get. That doesn’t mean that they’re all lip-service, just that you can’t tell what motivates them. Often, not much. Or consider the player who plays multiple women at once, sweet-texting them all hoping for a bite. He can afford a feed forward strategy with them all because texted affections and affirmations are easy to send.
- Good cop, bad cop: We use pay forward and pay back strategies in a range of activities. For example good cops employ pay forward. They affirm you to get you to come clean. Bad cops employ pay back. They demand your help first before they affirm you.
- Grace and Law: In religious studies, we talk about the relationship between grace (affirmation from God) and law (what you owe in return). The Protestant reformation was built on the idea that grace comes first–God as good cop. The Catholic Church had turned grace into something you had to earn–God as bad cop: Follow the law and you’ll get grace. Protestantism reversed it: God grants you grace up front. He has paid you forward, so pay him back by following His laws.
- Affirmation can be like political corruption: There may be no greater problem in the world today than political corruption, people trading unearned money for unearned favors, dictators bribing their way into power, corporations bribing politicians with political contributions, democracies veering into dead ends steered by the distorting power of corruption’s false economy. At the personal level, affirmations can be as dangerous a false economy. It’s not just religion that bribes people with false affirmations of God’s praise. We all can distort standards just by buttering each other up too liberally.
- Wean toward leaner leaning: One way to manage the affirmation currency is to minimize your dependence upon it. Neither an affirmer or affirmee be. At least be very discriminating about whose affirmations matter to you and who you give them too. Boycott the affirmation economy. Become egonomical—economical in your ego-stroking.
- The hungry are soon eaten: If you’re too hungry for affirmation you can’t be discriminating. Depend on affirmation from any source and soon you’ll be a sucker to any source of it. Live off the affirmation grid to the extent you can.