The Awkwardness Of Being Liked

I feel awkward about being liked[1]. On the surface, of course, just like all of us, I like to be liked[2]: I smile when someone gives me flowers or offers me a glass of wine; I feel uplifted when my words and actions – or even trivial things like pieces of clothing I’m wearing – receive a compliment; I nod in friendly appreciation when my posts of home-made bread, rainbow bodied avatars, or witty bits of wisdom uttered by my son attract responses in my social media feeds. Also, I routinely handle the professional liking bundled in with interactions with my clients, or the attention paid by an audience – “live” or remote – that I’m speaking to. These, however, are knee-jerk conventional reactions, trained in years of continuously aspiring (and failing again and again) to be a friendly, kind, and generally respectful person. If I were to be strict with myself, I might have to say that these are fake displays of pretending to enjoy being liked – the sympathetic masks of human kindness.

Deep down, however, I feel utterly awkward about being liked. I’m much more comfortable being the sender of attention than its recipient, and I feel a lot more at ease with receiving criticism and dealing with it than with receiving praise and dealing with it. Now, this could be a totally irrelevant personal hangup of mine with no interest whatsoever for anyone else. In which case I could stop writing here and file the drafted blog post with other remainders of incomplete thoughts, unfinished frameworks, and half-written stories[3]. However, reflecting upon my personal conundrum of not really liking to be liked, I concluded that this shortcoming of mine might be of bigger relevance to our times. If you’re interested, you’ll have to bear with me for a paragraph or two (or maybe three) before the argument comes full circle.

We live in times in which (from a technical point of view) everyone can be – and often is – sending all the time. Not only do we actively share our most irrelevant (as well as our most profound) observations, thoughts, and experiences on social media channels, we also passively transmit tons of information about our whereabouts and whatabouts through search engine entries, geo-tags, online orders, or health apps. “Everyone of us a sender”, could well be the mantra for our digitally infused lives[4]. So far, on the one hand, this development has sparked massive debates about big data, privacy, and the threat that all stuff we send can be misused and turned against us either by malignant political bodies or by greedy, exploitative corporations[5]. On the other hand, the same development has brought about a rather serious identity crisis for many of those who were used to unswervingly believing in their own superiority as senders – from political elites to media professionals, from large global businesses to marketeers, from scientists to art curators[6].

What has attracted less attention in the public debates (at least those I follow) is the fact that by virtue of everyone being a sender, the ability to share, broadcast, and distribute information is no longer a scarce resource – and (as everything available in abundance) will therefore automatically become less and less valuable. When the world is awash with senders, the simple fact of being a sender becomes utterly worthless. For a while and/or in niches, the notion of – superior or inferior – content making a difference might still linger on, just like there are niches for exquisitely expensive brand of mineral water or allegedly “better” (for example as in “greener”) power. But even in those cases, value will be (if not: is) more and more about the song, not about the singer – as manifold cases of anonymous memes going viral are already demonstrating on a daily basis.

So: In a world where sending is the default mode and being a sender is an irrelevant role, what scheme will count instead? Dataism, fueled by superior algorithms beyond human intelligence, is one possible answer (that I will not dwell on here and now)[7]. Another possible answer – and now I’m slowly coming back to the musings that started this article – is the following: A sender is useless when its transmissions are not received, so when everyone is sending, those who know best how to be received will come out stronger than those who don’t. To be clear: This is not a question of commanding many receivers – just because someone has higher reach, bigger audiences, more followers, or better viewing rates, it doesn’t mean they know how to be received. It is also not a question of turning senders into receivers by asking them to listen instead of sending – an impossible demand anyways in a universe where everyone is a sender all the time[8].

A sender who knows how to be received is aware of the fact that others are tuning in to their frequency, accepts this tuning in as part of the play of giving and taking that goes on all the time, and gracefully embraces whatever interest is offered – letting all reflexes of fight, flight, or freeze dissolve into thin air. Which is – I dare to assume – where most of us senders, seasoned or newly emerging, are not. A sender who knows how to be received is in the same mental and emotional place as a human being who knows how to be liked – conscious of others’ attention, open to whatever is presented (or withdrawn), gently welcoming whatever is happening – not lashing out, not running away, not falling silent. Which is – see above – where I’m not, at least not all of the time. So this is how things come together: My very individual discomfort with being liked, and our collective clumsiness when it comes to handling the fact of being received – both illustrations of a similar inability to effortlessly hold the attention that others present us with.

So then: What is so hard about being liked? What is so hard about a sender’s messages being received? Here’s what I stumbled upon when I searched my own shortcomings – maybe some of it with at least a bit of relevance for the bigger picture as well.

Firstly, being at ease with being liked means being at ease with the utter volatility of all liking: Preferences come and go; relationships blossom and wither; even love between parents and their kids didn’t exist before they were parents and kids – and might dwindle again as time goes by and people drift apart, growing up, growing older. So being at ease with being liked means being at ease with being liked now – regardless of what was yesterday and regardless of what might happen tomorrow. Similarly, sending while knowing how to be received means being at ease with the patchy unpredictability of others’ attention – here today, gone tomorrow, gone with the wind, gone for good, completely gone – and then suddenly back in full force.

Then, being at ease with being liked means realizing that the fact that someone likes me says nothing about how I feel about them – let alone, how I should feel about them. Liking is neither a tit-for-tat game where “I like you” because “You like me”, nor is it a complicated web of interdependent mutual interpretations: “Because you like me I have to like you because if I don’t it’s going to make you unhappy which might lead to you liking me less which in turn might make me unhappy which might make you stop liking me altogether”. Nobody owes anyone anything because of anyone’s emotions with respect to anybody. So being at ease with being liked means being at ease with others’ emotions, neither adopting nor rejecting them. Similarly, sending while knowing how to be received means being at ease with the stormy waves of emotions raging in others hearts, heads, and minds – the pain and the passion, the despair and the exaltation, and the sudden evaporation of all of those.

Being at ease with being liked also means fully accepting the fact that I simply cannot control what others like me for. The features that attract them might be completely irrelevant to me – or they might even like things about me that I don’t like at all. One person might like me for being silly, another one might find appeal in my seriousness. One person might like my cooking, another might be intrigued by the movies that I recommend. One person might like my persistence another person might admire my restraint. One person might like my discipline, another person might be bewitched by my unpredictability. So being at ease with being liked means being at ease with a total lack of control. And similarly, sending while knowing how to be received means being at ease with the noise, the crackling, and the ultimate unreliability of others’ attentiveness – fully present and then completely distracted, deeply involved and then displaced to the distant end of a far away galaxy.

All in all, being at ease with being liked means being in a place defined by others while simultaneously not being there at all. It means constantly living in a lofty land of castles in the sky populated by others’ knights, princesses, dragons, and unicorns, while not moving an inch from the ground that I stand on. It means smiling at someone ripping out their heart and offering it to me, cautiously taking the blood-dripping present with open hands and holding it tenderly for eons – while not taking anything from them at all for a single instant. It means letting my mind be invaded by others’ images, stories, and fantasies, bending and twisting to truly see what they see – while not letting any of these visions leave even minute traces of stardust or ashes. So being at ease with being liked means being at ease with being and not being (and both and neither). And similarly, sending while knowing how to be received means being at ease with the equality – and with the ambiguity – of giving and taking, arriving and leaving, embracing and parting, falling apart and coming together[9].

In sum: A now, bustling with emotions, shifting focus moment by moment – and fully at rest with the restlessness. This is what appears when I peel off my awkwardness of being liked, and also – I believe – what makes someone who knows how to receive stand out from our times’ indiscriminate crowds of senders keen on only sending.

Or maybe not: “A now”, but rather: “I know”.

[1] This first sentence probably could just as well read: “I feel awkward about being hated”. It just so happens that I’m a lot less exposed to (and also less irritated by) heavy negative reactions, so the text happened to become a meditation about what it means to be liked and to not really like being liked.BACK TO TEXT

[2] For those who’ve been missing my occasional musical footnotes, here Peter Gabriel’s heartbreaking illustration of this feeling [retrieved May 5, 2017].BACK TO TEXT

[3] In case you’re wondering, my draft folder holds – among others – fragmented pieces about stacking strawberries, recycled paper, and the challenges of being political. All of these might or might not hold the key to finding the ultimate meaning of life.BACK TO TEXT

[4] A claim which, accidentally, reminds me of on old blog post of mine on (not) being a leader. If you go there, you’ll know why [retrieved May 5, 2017].BACK TO TEXT

[5] For an entertaining (albeit in a spooky way) treatment of the topic, I still recommend David Eggers novel “The Circle” (2013), just appearing as a movie, too. More fundamental research can easily be found by searching in the all right places, so I refrain from giving further references.BACK TO TEXT

[6] The coincidence of these two debates actually triggers the question whether the visible outrage of many traditional “senders” over matters of data privacy and protection is really as noble and liberal as it likes to present itself, or whether there’s a fair amount of self-interest involved in preventing the unlimited dissemination of senders.BACK TO TEXT

[7] Read Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus” (2015) for a mind-blowing tour de force of this idea.BACK TO TEXT

[8] I do admit, however, that I believe that the ability to listen well will remain an important skill in a senders’ world. I’ll write something about listening well at some point in the near future. If you#re impatient, some ideas can be found in this blog post about diversity [retrieved May 5, 2017].BACK TO TEXT

[9] Which, of course, comes with a languid reference to Moby’s, “Made of Stars” [retrieved May 5, 2017].BACK TO TEXT

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