Having been mostly away from the internet for the last couple of weeks, I’m late to the party as usual, but I still think there’s something that needs to be said about the reception that Sheril of The Intersection received at Discover Blogs. Well, not so much about the reception itself. Sheril said just about everything that needed to be said about that. Scicurious’s take on the incident is well worth reading, as well, as is DrugMonkey’s commentary on why this should and does matter to men too.

So after all that, and everything else that’s been said, what’s left to talk about? Maybe the fact that every single time a discussion like this occurs, someone wants to know when compliments are appropriate. Sure, the temptation is there to dismiss the questions as distractions from the discussion at hand, but it is a real question for many people. Some of those comments are honest cris de coeur. And the conflicting responses, plus the occasional “never outside a relationship” aren’t helpful.

The real answer is both blindingly simple and incredibly difficult in practice: it’s negotiable.

Personal compliments are like touch, like nicknames and entrusted secrets. They’re an intimacy. They’re something that entails giving up a little bit of our personal integrity by letting someone in.

Intimacies are a good thing. We build relationships by exchanging these small pieces of ourselves and by treating them well. We build trust out of intimacies.

But intimacies also require trust, and they’re not something we can or want to share with everyone. If you’ve ever wondered why someone considers it infantilizing to be on the receiving end of an unwanted intimacy, just think about that relative–I don’t know which relative it was for you, but we’ve all had one–who wouldn’t stop calling you by your childhood nickname even after you graduated from high school, or who tried to smooth down your hair after you spent all that time getting it to do that. When we’re children, we don’t always have choices about what intimacies to accept. As adults, we should. That part should be simple.

Which brings us to negotiation. Negotiation isn’t simple, but it’s the only way to deal with the fact that rules just can’t cover as much complexity as people can produce. It’s one (very tempting) thing to say that personal compliments are never acceptable in a professional context, but that ignores the extent to which people become friends with their coworkers.

It also can’t account for professions in which the personal and the professional overlap to a greater degree, such as acting or sales. I have a friend who used to be a coworker who, before a big sales pitch, would need to know that he looked good. Because he trusted me to be critical and to not be in competition with him since I wasn’t in sales, he came to me for his reassurance. I’ve doled out more personal compliments in a professional situation than perhaps anyone but a stage director.

Now, that doesn’t mean that he asked me, “Is this sweater too tight or just tight enough?” my first day on the job, as my answer then would have been, “Needs to be tighter. You’re still breathing.” There was, in fact, one strongly worded discussion about taking anything about our friendship for granted somewhere along the way. But eventually we negotiated our way to the point where he could ask something like that and I could answer and neither of us was made uncomfortable.

Really, that’s all this kind of negotiation is about, finding that point where both parties are comfortable. How to do that is much more complicated. It’s not something that anyone teaches us, and there are as many means of negotiation as there are potential outcomes. Also, American society doesn’t put a very high premium on the kind of emotional honesty, with ourselves or each other, that would make this all much easier.

That said, here are a few guidelines for negotiating intimacy:

  1. Least desired intimacy always wins. If someone is experiencing less intimacy than they want, they may feel frustrated. Dealing with frustration is what makes us adults. If someone is experiencing more intimacy than they want, they feel, at best, uncomfortable. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.
  2. Intimacy comes in stages and levels. If you start slowly and progress slowly, you’re much less likely to overshoot.
  3. Intimacy does not move in only one direction through time. Just because you had, or gave, permission for something before, it doesn’t necessarily extend forever.
  4. Every relationship is a new negotiation. The intimacy between two people is shaped by their shared experiences and may not reflect the level of intimacy either one is willing to share with you.
  5. Be sure. As I mentioned before, some people are not very good at communicating what they want. Some people are not very good at picking up on subtle communication. We’re all good at seeing what we want to see, as well as seeing what we fear. Know what level of clarity you need not to make mistakes. If you have to keep asking, “May I?” out loud, that’s okay.
  6. Negotiation is an intimacy as well. If someone doesn’t want to negotiate, stop. If you don’t trust someone to negotiate fairly, you don’t want to be intimate with them, in any sense.

Simple, right? Well, no. Negotiating intimacy and relationships is one of the harder things people do, and we shouldn’t ever pretend otherwise. If we didn’t all make mistakes at it, well, the self-help publishing industry would implode. Then we wouldn’t all know what planet we’re from.

Seriously, though, you will make mistakes. Communication is difficult, and anyone who tells you otherwise has merely limited their audience to the people with whom they’re comfortable communicating. But knowing that you have to negotiate is freeing, too, when you realize it means that you’re not trying to learn a set of rules that, to the extent they exist, are more often than not defined by their exceptions.

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15 Responses to “Negotiables”

  1. April 3rd, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    And, obviously, the sort of comments that people put into the new “Intersection” blog had never been negotiated with Sheril.

  2. April 3rd, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Not even an attempt at negotiating.

  3. April 3rd, 2009 at 11:29 am

    becca says:

    This is one of those things that ‘should’ be obvious… and yet in reality can be so incredibly complex as to be almost overwhelming. It seems like some relationships take continual negotiation. And some people just… don’t… get it.
    But very well summed up, in any event.

  4. April 3rd, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    uncle noel says:

    Well put. There are a lot of folks who need this essay on their refrigerators.

  5. April 3rd, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    ambivalent academic says:

    Very well put Stephanie. It’s hard to lay down some rules about this and they generally don’t work. Reminding everyone that we are personally responsible for negotiating (that is a great word in this context) our own inter-personal relationships is a good first step. I think people (at least in my circle of socially “quirky” academics) sometimes forget that they are capable of this.

  6. April 3rd, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    khan says:

    Very well said.

    Even within established relationships (married 20 years) terms may have to be renegotiated.

    —Some people are not very good at picking up on subtle communication. We’re all good at seeing what we want to see, as well as seeing what we fear. Know what level of clarity you need not to make mistakes. If you have to keep asking, “May I?” out loud, that’s okay.—

    I am one of those people. Life became easier when I convinced myself there’s nothing wrong with putting stuff into words. Of course, there are those who get upset with overt negotiation; but they probably aren’t worth the trouble.

  7. April 3rd, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    ELR says:

    I realize the following is a joke, but I also think the general observation is correct to a more or lesser extent depending on the person. Why does anonymity mean a certain portion of people feel there is no longer a need for negotiations? ie) they’d never say such things in person.

    Link includes some vulgarity that is probably NSFW for most.

  8. April 3rd, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    ELR …. but there are so many counter examples! like for instance … Ah, no not that one, he’s actually not anonymous… Oh, what about …. oh, no, she came out last year and right away got a bit nicer. Oh, I know, how about … oh, no, that one’s a total asshole.


    Never mind.

  9. April 3rd, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Jadehawk says:

    that was an excellent post! it’s certainly a lot more insightful than the “men will be men” vs. “don’t EVER say that!!” screamfests that resulted from this :-p

    I shall bookmark this and link to it everytime this argument starts again. and it will. it always does.

  10. April 3rd, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Becca, as I mentioned in an email to Greg after we realized we were both thinking about the same topic, I’m rather impressed with the number of forces operating against this kind of social maturity. From traditional gender role messages about communication to our society’s fascination with the successful bully to the strange notions we have about how romantic love is “supposed” to work, it’s impressive anyone gets this at all. Then there are all the people who just like the security of rules, or as AA said, forget that they can manage this.

    Jadehawk, you totally caught me out. That’s why I write posts like this, so I can say, “Oh, I’m not going to have this argument again. Just go read this.”

    Greg, any bets as to how many people don’t get that you’re joking, despite the fact that you’re responding to someone who’s essentially anonymous?

  11. April 4th, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Greg Laden says:

    The pseudonymous people will think I am not joking and the non-pseudo’s will think that I am. Both will be wrong.

    Because guess what: IT’S NEGOTIATED!!!!!!

    What I find astonishing is that many anonymous Internet denizens not only insist that there is no relationship between being an asshole and being anonymous (in the absence of the necessary evidence to say anything) but they also become dumb about the reasonable assertion that being anonymous changes the formula for how the negotiation would develop. For that, there is abundant evidence from studies in psychology and economics: Identity is linked to consequences and consequence is linked to the decision making process of how to act and what to do.

  12. April 4th, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    The joke being only that there are no counterexamples. Because while identity has an effect, some people have much more internalized identities than others, which means that anonymity has less of an effect for those people. Of course, I have no data on how that would interact with who chooses to be anonymous.

  13. April 4th, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Right. It is very complicated. I’ve been trying to think of a way to actually bring some data to the table in this discussion, but that woudl be quite difficult.

  14. April 6th, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Nerdcore Steve says:

    I don’t believe that it would have occurred to me to comment on a science blogger’s looks, but I must admit that it didn’t occur to me that a comment like “mmmmmmmm……….. wo-man” was anything other than silly and harmless. This incident prompted a long discussion between myself and my girlfriend, and some introspection on my part.

  15. April 6th, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    If you don’t mind us asking, what sort of conclusion did you come to?

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