Saturday, July 2, 2022

Seemers Always Win: Posing as Someone Like You

I have pondered the following several times here on the Slog. This time, maybe I'll cough up a novel insight. Or, at least express it more vividly, so you can ponder it, yourself.

Wait, YOU founded that website????

Whenever I meet someone new who recognizes "Chowhound" if it comes up in discussion, I always get the same disbelieving reaction:
Huh? Hold on. That was you? YOU?!?
At this point, I stop the conversation and beg the bewildered, skeptical person to explain what, exactly, they expected. It's not that I'm being defensive or confrontational. It's that I genuinely don't know how a Jim Leff is supposed to look or act! No one ever taught me how to act like someone like me!

To me, I'm a shmuck who's done cool things. I'm "crew", not "talent". I'm the shlubby and put-upon director juggling a thousand plates, not the composed and preened movie star oozing charisma. I'm busy doing stuff. I create pizazz, I don't exude it.

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. And I really care deeply about the singing (so to speak). So much so that I don't waste a nano-speck of energy trying to seem like it. Or to seem like anything, really. If you're doing, with all your heart, who's got time to seem?

I never receive a satisfactory answer. It's not that they expected me to travel with a security team, or to address them with smug condescension. They don't have any particular image in mind. Just certainly not that.

Instead of putting 6000% of myself into making Chowhound good, I suppose I should have reserved some energy for making myself look the part. Maybe coif yourself better. Jaunty blazers and expensive Italian loafers. Don't move your head animatedly. Act your age, and your "station" - snidely complacent and redolent of cologne and gravitas. Most of all, never give others your full attention. In the wolf pack, this signals beta status, making you smell needy and subservient. Weakly reactive. It's the antithesis of the manly man plotting bold courses and kicking ass. That guy hardly has time to devote to the likes of you. Sorry, bud, but I got people to fry!

Being and Seeming

So here's the question. Having been successful in a half dozen unrelated fields, with my name on a bunch of books and records and media stuff, having inspired a generation of Spanish and Portuguese jazz musicians and had some minor rippling effect on how folks think and write about food and use the Internet, is it also incumbent on me to seem like that person? Have I ignored a critical chunk along the way? Am I going around obliviously without my pants on? Do I need to fix this?

I can't imagine anything more foolish than posing as the sort of person I actually am. Isn't that backwards? One dons an aloof "That Guy" persona - too busy with important importance to do whatever - if one is a bluffer who hasn't done much but wants to seem like he has. I get why people strike that pose, but why would we expect the genuine to match the pose; to imitate the imitators?

Why would I pose as me? The question makes my head explode. None of my insight re: human psychology helps. And the awful and dopey truth is that even if I put effort into posing as someone like me - to look the part, whatever that even means - I'd surely wind up in the lower 20th percentile of me-posers. I'd be terrible at it!

I'm quite good at doing things, but horrendously bad at posing as a thing-doer. There are specialists for that! Thousands of them! And they're good! They can do something I can't, and I truly admire them! Me, I could never fool anyone into imagining I could do something notable. Even if I actually have.

Seemers always win!

Nice Guy

The same applies in many other realms. For example, I don't seem like a nice guy.

I'm not diffidently soft-spoken. I don't massage your shoulders while telling you how awesome you are. I don't bend over backwards to never contradict you. I don't do any of the standard things Nice Guys do, and am therefore widely considered ornery and irascible.

Yet I'll do nearly anything to help almost anyone. If you call me at 3:30 am needing to be picked up on the Jersey Turnpike, I'll be there with delicious chocolate I'd desperately hoped to hog for myself. I'll mull stranger's problems with the same determination I devote to my own (I don't even make a distinction). I am very far from being "Mr. Wonderful", but you'd think I'd earned, at least, "nice".

It's even worse than that. Friends who've been on the receiving end of my helpfulness, and spent years watching me extend myself, still don't think of me as a particularly nice guy. Because Nice Guy status is earned not by being nice but by seeming nice. A nice guy rubs your shoulders, modulates his voice, never contradicts anything, and tells you you're awesome (note: that guy will never, ever come get you at 3am, though he’ll leave you feeling fantastic about yourself as he hangs up the phone and rolls back to sleep). I could sell all my belongings and live naked in the woods to give some random taxi driver a better life for his family and still never earn that sobriquet. Because it's 100% about the seeming. Again, seemers always win.
Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing.
Paramours and Potheads

So many other examples. For example, I'm a funny-looking dude - the anti-Brad Pitt, if you will - and yet I've recruited, in my time, a succession of quite glamorous girlfriends, all oddly enamored. Yet no one - including those who witnessed that procession - would ever imagine that I might have boyfriending skills. We know what desirable boyfriends are like. Leather pants and coiled abs. Steely gazes and strong jawlines. It ought to be a clue that guys with those womanizing attributes often turn out to be gay. But even the other side of that coin - geez, that shlubby trombonist seems awfully popular! - never moves the needle.

"Him?!? That guy???"

Seemers always win.

One more. I was recently standing with a gaggle of acquaintances passing around a joint. One of them - who actually knew that I'd spent decades as a funky horn player for great jazz, blues, funk, ska, and Latin bands...

Me in 1988

....passed the joint not to me, but past me to the next guy. "What gives?" I asked. "Sorry...I assumed you wouldn't be interested". He knew who and what I was. But he couldn't help acting on how I seem.

Empathy Theater

I once proposed a radical new view of autism, suggesting it's not a dysfunction but an evolutionary improvement (like all improvements, bringing along certain drawbacks, particularly marked in severe "cases").

In that article, I recalled discussing this with a school psychologist. I'd asked her to consider that just because someone isn't acting empathic - engaging in "empathy theater", i.e. spouting empathic-sounding platitudes and composing facial features in empathic-seeming configurations - doesn't mean there's no empathy. In my experience, autistics are more empathic, not less. They just don't engage in (or even understand) empathy theater. They're not seemers.

She asked the salient question: If they don't externalize their feelings - say the words and make the gestures and act the part - how could we possibly know how they feel?

To me, it's abundantly clear. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Their actions. Because platitudes, as we all know, can easily be faked.

Fake Jim Leff didn't build a cool web site.
Fake Nice Guy won't come get you at 3am.
Fake Don Juan shares her Brad Pitt fascination.
Empathy theatrics are as significant as a shot of Botox.

Why would anyone pay credence to empty cliché and stock gesture? How could such tropes parse as genuine, when they're so easily faked? Time and again, we see empty posing and manipulation. Yet "Seeming" remains the sine non qua of genuineness, while "Actuality" barely budges most people's spidey sense. Are we really so certain that autistics are the dysfunctional ones?

Read my autism post, and ask yourself this: isn't it smarter, deeper, better - and way less dishonest, manipulative and shallowly craptastic - to Do than to Seem? To be The Person Who Does The Thing than rather than to pose as a Thing-Doer? Who would you rather listen to: a singer who became a singer because she wanted to be a singer, or one who became a singer because she wanted to sing?

Alas, no fresh insight to offer. Well, wait. That's not true. The giving-others-full-attention-makes-you-look-subservient is a fresh chunk. Anyway, I'll try again.

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