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The Advice Goddess: January 2018
Tuesday, 02 January 2018 11:35

Teach a man to be soothing?

Q: — There’s always been an attraction between this guy and me. I’ve been thinking of testing the waters with him romantically, but he recently mentioned that he freaks out when women cry. He says he just has no idea what to do. Well, I’m an emotional person — generally happy but also a big crier. Are we a bad match, or could I teach him to soothe me? 
— Waterworks

A: Most men are comfortable dealing with any leaky item -- as long as it can be fixed with an adjustable wrench and a Phillips screwdriver.

If there’s a decoder ring for human emotion, it’s the female brain. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen finds that men, generally speaking, just aren’t as good as women at what’s called “theory of mind” — the ability to “infer what other people might be thinking or intending.” He explains that women, from childhood on, tend to be the “empathizers” of the species, driven to identify others’ “emotions and thoughts, and to respond with the appropriate emotions” (say, by hugging a teary-eyed person instead of treating an individual like a statue weeping blood).

In contrast with female “empathizers,” Baron-Cohen describes men as the “systematizers” of the species. This is a fancy way of saying they’re engineering-focused — driven, from a young age, to identify how inanimate stuff works and “derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system.” However, these are “reliable” rules, like the law of gravity — “What goes up must come down“ —  nothing helpful for fathoming what the girlfriend’s got swirling around in her head when she suddenly goes all funeralface.

Typically, women believe “If he loved me, he’d figure it out.” Um, no. Not here in realityland. Assume most heterosexual men are sucky at emotional tea leaf reading. When you’re in boohooville (or on your way), tell a man what you’re feeling and how he could help — for example, by just listening and rubbing your back. In time, this may help him avoid reacting to the welling of that very first tear by diving behind the couch and yelling, “Incoming! One o’clock! Alpha team, flank left!”



Nose to the groin stone 

I’m a woman, and I recently made a new professional connection — a man who’s excited about my work. We’re planning on doing a big important project together. I’m worried that he’s interested in me romantically (based on a few things he’s said). I’m not interested in him in that way. What’s the right thing to say to get that across?

— All Business



It’s tempting to get everything out in the open right away: “I’ve run the numbers on your chances of having sex with me, and they’re pretty close to the odds of your being crushed to death by a middle-aged dentist falling out of the sky.”

Informing a guy pronto that you aren’t romantically interested in him — though in somewhat kinder language — would be the right thing to do if he were just some persistent Tinder date you wanted to unload forever. 

But you’re hoping to have a continuing business relationship with this guy. So even if it were wildly obvious that he has the hots for you, the last thing you should do is mention that particular elephant in the room (not even while you’re pole-vaulting over steaming mountain ranges of elephant dung).

Cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker points out that “most social interaction” involves some conflicting goals — for example, when only one of two people is interested in ending the evening in the tool shed/sex dungeon. (Yes, sometimes the nightcap is a rubber hood.)

Pinker explains that “indirect speech” — not saying exactly what you think or want — is a way two people can maintain their relationship as it is (even when both suspect or are pretty sure that their desired outcomes are in sharp conflict). The sometimes tiny measure of ambiguity — uncertainty about another person’s goals — that is fostered by indirect speech does a big job. It allows the person who wants something the other doesn’t to save face, enabling the two to preserve their common ground. 

So, your refraining from telling the guy that you aren’t interested (in so many words) allows him to cling to the ego-preserving possibility that you might be. If he goes direct on you — tells you he wants to sex up your business relationship — that’s when you likewise get explicit: Tell him straight out that you want to keep things strictly professional. However, this may not be necessary if you act in ways that say “just business!” 

Avoid going flirty in communicating with him, and schedule meetings for the utterly unsexiest times and places possible. Nobody ends up doing the walk of shame because they had seconds on biscotti and one too many double espressos. 


Venus envy

I’m a 30-something woman, tall and thin, whom friends describe as beautiful. Perhaps for this reason, I’m often confronted with rude social assaults by people who assume things are handed to me on a silver platter. I am financially independent and have a full-time job and own a home and car. I dress and act modestly. Yet, I’m repeatedly insulted by people who suggest I got my job and other benefits because of my looks. What can I do to avoid or deflect these demeaning insinuations?

— Not Just Skin Deep


Inner beauty, unfortunately, only turns heads of people with X-ray vision: “Excuse me, miss, but has anyone ever told you that you have a very pretty appendix?” 

Sadly, complaints about the difficulty of being eye candy in a world of eye kale tend not to engender much sympathy, and researchers haven’t helped matters. There’s a considerable pile of research that has found a “beauty premium” (especially for women) — a bias toward hiring and promoting the hotties of the workforce — and, depressingly, an “ugliness penalty” holding back the more Shrekalicious among us. 

But it turns out that the methodology behind this slew of findings -- and the conclusion that simply having cheerleader good looks acts as a sort of express elevator for your career — was a bit overly broad. According to a 2017 paper by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa and sociologist Mary Still, once you drill down into the details — control for health, intelligence, and personality characteristics (along with some other individual differences) — you see a more nuanced result: “It appears that more beautiful workers earn more, not because they are beautiful, but because they are healthier, more intelligent,” and have more desirable personality traits: more conscientiousness and extroversion and less neuroticism. 

Sure, this probably sounds absurd — this association of good looks with intelligence, a winning personality, and good health. However, take that last one. It turns out that beauty is more than nice human scenery; it’s also advertising for what’s on the inside. For example, consider the preference across cultures for faces with “bilateral symmetry.” 

“Facial bilateral symmetry” is anthropologist-ese for both sides of a person’s face being a strong match -- meaning, for example, that one eyelid isn’t a little droopier than the other. Facial or bodily asymmetry is an indicator of the presence of parasites or disease, and we evolved to be drawn to healthy people -- though we just think, “What a pretty face!” not “There’s someone who isn’t a foster home for tapeworms!” 

I don’t want to go too far into the weeds on why outer beauty might reflect good stuff on the inside. However, for one more example, Kanazawa and Still speculate about the personality benefit associated with being pretty (referencing evolutionary psychologist Aaron Lukaszewski’s research): “Because physically attractive children are more likely to experience positive feedback from interpersonal interactions,” they’re more likely to develop an extroverted personality than less physically attractive children. 

Getting back to you, just as previous research on “the beauty premium” failed to zoom in on the details, there’s a good chance you’re seeing your problem a little too broadly — seeing “people” engaging in the “rude social assaults.” Research on sex differences in competition by psychologist Joyce Benenson suggests it’s probably women who are doing most or all of the sneering. 

Men — from childhood on — tend to be comfortable with hierarchy and openly duking it out for top spots in a way women are not. Women tend to engage in covert aggression — like with frosty treatment and undermining remarks -- in hopes of making another woman dim her own shine and voluntarily relocate lower down the ladder. 

The best way to combat such sniping in the moment is to go placid pokerface, treating their comments like lint to brush off. (There’s little satisfaction in verbally battering somebody who doesn’t appear to care.) 

In the long run, however, your best bet is being somebody who’s hard to hate. Research by behavioral economist Ernst Fehr suggests it’s in our self-interest to be altruistic — to engage in behavior that’s somewhat costly to us (in, say, time or energy) in order to benefit other people. This means, for example, developing a reputation as someone who’s always looking out for your colleagues’ interests — like by tipping off co-workers about opportunities and publicly cheering colleagues’ achievements. 

Finally, if I’m right that women are your main detractors, consider Benenson’s observation that women show each other they aren’t a threat through sharing vulnerabilities -- revealing weaknesses and problems. Ideally, of course, these should be difficulties along the lines of “Sorry I’m late. My car’s a useless piece of tin” and not “Sorry I’m late. ANOTHER guy drove into a pole looking at me, and I had to wait with him for the ambulance.”


Alice In wanderland

I follow you on Twitter, and I was disgusted to see your tweet about marriage, “No, humans aren’t naturally monogamous -- which is why people say relationships ‘take work,’ while you never hear anybody talking about what a coal mine an affair can be.” If a person finds fidelity so challenging, they should stay single. 

— Ethical Married Person


Reality has this bad habit of being kind of a bummer. So, sure, that person you married all those years ago still has the capacity to surprise you with crazy new positions in bed — but typically they’re yogi-like contortions they use to pick dead skin off the bottoms of their feet. 

That line you quote, “relationships ‘take work,’ while you never hear … what a coal mine an affair can be,” is actually from one of my old columns. I tweeted it along with this advice: “Don’t just assume you & romantic partner (will) stay monogamous. Maybe discuss how, exactly, you’ll go about that.” 

From where I sit — opening lots of letters and email from cheaters and the cheated upon — this is simply good, practical marriage- (and relationship-) preserving advice. But from some of the responses on Twitter, you’d think I’d suggested braising the family dog and serving him on a bed of greens with a “tennis ball” of candied yams. 

Though some men and women on Twitter merely questioned my take, interestingly, the enraged responses (ranging from impersonally rabid to denigratingly hateful) came entirely from men. Granted, this may just have been due to chance (who was shirking work on Twitter just then), or it may reflect research on sex differences that suggests men tend to be more comfortable engaging in direct conflict. 

However, though evolutionary psychologist David Buss, among others, finds that both men and women are deeply upset by infidelity — or the mere prospect of it —  there seems to be a sex difference in who is more likely to go absolutely berserko over it. Buss, looking out over the anthropological literature, observes: “In cultures the world over, men find the thought of their partner having sexual intercourse with other men intolerable. Suspicion or detection of infidelity causes many men to lash out in furious anger rarely seen in other contexts.”

Evolutionary psychologists have speculated that the fierceness of male sexual jealousy may be an evolved adaptation to combat the uniquely male problem of “paternity uncertainty” — basically the “who actually is your daddy?” question. A woman, of course, knows that the tiny human who’s spent a good part of nine months sucker-punching her in the gut is hers.

However, our male ancestors lacked access to 23andMe mail-in DNA tests. So male emotions seem to have evolved to act as an alarm system, goading men to protect themselves (like with a scary expression of anger to forewarn their partner), lest they be snookered into raising another man’s child. 

The problem with the enraged response is that it kicks our brain into energy conservation mode — shunting blood flow away from our higher-reasoning department and toward our arms and legs and organs needed for “fight or flight.” So the mere mention of cheating — even coupled with suggestions for how to prevent it — kills any possibility of reasoned thinking. In our dumbed-down enraged state, all we’ve got is the knee-jerk response: “I am so totally moral, and so is my wife, and anyone who needs to discuss how they’ll stay monogamous is the Whore of Babylon!” 

Unfortunately, aggressive denial of reality is particularly unhelpful for infidelity prevention. It’s especially unhelpful when it’s coupled with feelings of moral superiority. Organizational behaviorist Dolly Chugh and her colleagues find that people’s view of themselves as “moral, competent, and deserving … obstructs their ability” to make ethical decisions under pressure.

So, as the late infidelity researcher Peggy Vaughan advised, “a couple’s best hope for monogamy lies in rejecting the idea that they can assume monogamy without discussing the issue.” They should instead admit that “attractions to others are likely … no matter how much they love each other” and “engage in ongoing honest communication about the reality of the temptations and how to avoid the consequences of acting on those temptations.” 

For example: What’s the plan if, say, marital sex gets a little sparse? If the marriage hits a rough patch? If that hot co-worker starts hitting on you when you’re drunk and a little unhappy while on a business trip?

Maybe it seems depressing to discuss this stuff. However, a wedding ring is not an electrified fence. Accepting that is probably your best bet for avoiding emotional devastation and divorce when, 25 years in, a “jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou” still keeps the old spark alive in bed — but only when supplemented with a well-charged cordless cattle prod.

(c.) 2018, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA  90405, or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ( Weekly radio show:



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