5/03/2012

05-03-12 - Doing Work For Another

It's very pleasurable to do some hard work for someone else, when you can do something for them, push yourself, work at it for a while, and you feel like they really appreciate it. It's one of the principle pleasures of the human pack, it's part of what makes being single so horrible. (when you're single all the hard work you're doing is only for yourself, and you inevitably have to ask yourself "why am I doing this? I don't really care" and you wind up putting on a bath robe and becoming The Dude).

This hard work for someone else principle is huge in domestic bliss, from the smallest level to the overall. On the small scale, even tiny things like doing dishes are so much better if you feel like the family appreciates it, if they acknowledge and are kind about your contribution to the group. Of course children and husbands are consistently dickish about this, they don't want to give the respect and status elevation associated with gratitude.

Of course if you are a good person you should gladly let the other person have the pleasure of doing something for you. The tricky thing is knowing when they want to do it, and when they are just offering because they think you want it. When someone offers to do something for you, and you don't really particularly care, it's super dicky to just say so. One of the great social disfunctions of the nerdy computer guy is being too literal in conversation. You may think you are being clear by listening and responding to the content of the words, but in fact you are being a huge dick by not picking up what they really mean.

(in fact, often people use this as a way of intentionally being a dick; for example when someone is clearly trying to tell you something but they just can't say it directly, and you respond with "what are you saying" or "if you want something just tell me" or whatever, it's not their fault for failing to spit it out, it's your fault for failing to pick up the very obvious message that they aren't saying.)

Back to the case in point, when someone asks you "hey I was thinking of doing this thing for you which is quite a lot of work for me, would you like me to do it?" you are now faced with a puzzle (assuming you don't really care about the actual work product very much). Are they just offering for your sake (and would be happy if you said no, don't do it), or are they offering because they want to do it, and they want to do it for someone. eg. when your auntie offers to bake you cookies it's actually because she wants to bake cookies for you, it's not about what you want. In some cases it's tricky because it's hard to tell what's actually going on with their intention. You also can't just ask, of course, like "are you offering for my benefit, or do you just want to do that?" because people are not so self-aware, nor are they so open in their admissions.

Even once you are sophisticated enough to navigate that minefield, the next step is equally treacherous, when you get to the details of the act. Depending on whether you think the person was offering for your benefit or their benefit, you have to tailor your requests to what *they* want to do, even though they will ask you what *you* want to do. eg. when auntie offers to make you cookies, she will ask what kind; this case is easy because you know it's for her benefit, so you should choose a type of cookie that she likes to make; in some cases she has a "famous" variety (it's pretty fucking hillarious how many American secret family recipes are actually just the Betty Crocker recipe or some shit like that).

As another example, if I offer to throw a pot for someone, it's not because I think they really want me to, it's because I want to throw a pot, and it's nice to do it with someone in mind. Your only task in the job is to act grateful. You have about 30 seconds of work to do, if you aren't actually grateful you have to put on a smile and say thanks; it's just outrageously dickish if you fail to do that 30 seconds of work for me. (the same is true of most present receiving of course). Furthermore, if I offer to throw you a pot and you know I make sort of rustic ceramics don't say "what I really like are the cast art deco ceramics" ; you fucking asshole, if the conversation was entirely literal that would be a fine response, but of course it's not; the subtextual conversation went something like "I want to make a pot, can I pretend it's for you?" and you responded with "you can make it, but I won't let you pretend that I'm happy about it, and I'm going to belittle your work first". That example may be overly obvious, but a lot of the time people tell themselves they are being constructive or helpful by trying to push you with weird requests, or by pointing out ways your stuff could be better; that in fact is not helpful and is probably even more dicky (and in fact I believe they subconsciously know they are being dicky and it's sort of intentional as some sort of dominance bullshit).

Okay. So in real life you can never be completely sure what the subtext is. You can only make a probability estimate; you aren't entirely sure what the other person's intentions were. Then you have to do an analysis like a poker player. Human conversation is a game of imperfect information. Let's outline the game in this case :


Player 1 has a hand which contains either the "I do it for you" card or the "I do it for myself" card
Player 1 makes the offer which reveals some information in subtext
Player 2 has to make an estimate of 1's holdings; eg. based on the limited information I got, I
    esimated they have "for you" 20% of the time and "for me" 80% of the time
Player 2 says yes or no
Player 1 asks about the details ; this reveals a little bit more information
    and player 2 revises their estimates.

Player 2 must now consider their various possible responses;
fold = "forget it"
call = "do it your way"
raise = "actually please do it this specific way"

What you have to do is a weighted EV analysis; that is,
for each possible action I can take, what is the outcome in each of the hidden cases ("for you" or "for myself")
then weight the value by my current estimate of what the underlying truth is

People with very sophisticated social intelligence are actually doing this kind of analysis all the time, though I think they don't realize it. (I've written a rant very similar to this before).

Anyhoo, aside from the sort of micro, conversational cases like this, this principle of "doing it for myself but pretending to do it for you" is one of the primary macro forces in relationships.

The most obvious example is the stereotypical male/female family roles. The man goes off to work and puts in lots of hours and grinds himself down "for her", and the woman stays home and cleans and raises the kids and dreams up home improvements "for him". Of course in reality, the other person typically doesn't actually want that. eg. she would be happier if he didn't work so hard and come home so tired and grumpy, and she would be just fine if they made a bit less money. He in fact is not doing it for her, but because he wants the challenge, or wants the good job, or thinks he's supposed to for some reason or whatever. But he can be much happier if he is allowed to pretend that it is "for her". In a healthy relationship, she would allow him to have that illusion and support him to some extent (though in a truly healthy relationship you should also be able to have the conversation about "hey you're working too hard and it's not actually for the family's benefit" if it gets out of hand).

(there's an obvious sort of "Gift of the Magi" in the old 50's stereotype family roles; the man works his ass off "for the family" (not really), which just alienates him from his wife, she wishes he would come home with more energy for her, while the wife cooks and cleans and pretties up the house, which just annoys the man, he wishes she would just relax and leave well enough alone).

This macro feeling that what you're doing is "for the family" shouldn't really be in your mind every day (if it is, you might be one of those narcissistic psychopaths who constantly talks about how they would do anything for their family, including fucking over anyone outside their family, etc. (I recall reading about the Costa Concordia accident where some douchebag was proud to say that he had punched his way to a lifeboat to secure a seat for his child; it's sort of weird that these dangerous psychopaths are admired by a decent chunk of society (sort of like the surreal psychological dissonance I feel when I see admiration for someone who is just so obviously overtly evil like Dick Cheney or Rupert Murdoch))) - but it is a nice undertone to your whole life. Once a week you have a moment where you think "fuck, why am I doing all this? I'm so tired, maybe I should just run away to Asia" and in that moment you can think "it's for my family" and it makes you feel better. It's incredibly dickish (and a failed relationship) if the other person doesn't allow you to feel like you are making a contribution to the unit.

(it would be nice if there was syntax coloring for deeply parenthesized writing, I might do it more)

When one party complains about their workload in the partnership, often what it really means is that they aren't getting enough gratitude. In our stereotypical sexist couple, when the man comes home and complains about how hard work is, the correct response is not "well maybe you should work less, I don't want you to do this, don't pretend it's for me". When the stereotypical woman says "I'm sick of doing the dishes all the time" or whatever, there is some aspect of literalness in that, but the more important subtext is "I'm not receiving sufficient gratitude (or sufficient cohesion) to have the pleasure of feeling like I'm doing this work for our family unit".


Semi-related topic : a lot of the work that people consider "hard" is not actually. eg. things like being in the Army, or raising a child. They may be difficult, they may be grueling, they may be exhausting; but if you feel like your work is for a reason, if it's very clear to you what you are supposed to do, and you just go do it, and then you feel like it was for good - that's easy. That's the easiest fucking thing in the world. It doesn't matter how tiring the actual work activity is. When someone hands you a todo list and says do this then this then this, that's so peaceful and relaxing and easy. When you wake up in the morning and you know your todo list for the day (feed the kids, take em to school), that's easy.

The truly difficult thing is doing work that is only for yourself, that you're not really sure if it's a good idea or not, and you're not really sure if you're doing it the right way. That is fucking horrible and exhausting. Every few minutes you have to stop and think "wait, why am I doing this? maybe I should stop".

A lot of people get themselves through life by making up goals that they "have to" do. I'm not really sure how self-aware the average person is (for example, do bird watchers know that bird watching is fucking retarded? it is nice to get outside, and it's nice to have a reason to get outside, and it's nice to make up an excuse about why you "have to" go to the jungles of New Guinea, but doing it to see some bird is fucking ridiculous, right? do bird watchers actually realize why they are doing? and how arrogant am I that I think I know more about other people's real motivations than they do?) - but clearly people do this to themselves. Like I "have to" lose weight for my bikini vacation, or I have to do this kitchen remodel; it's like they create this task for themselves, and then for a while they act like it was an order given from on high that they cannot question, and that makes life easier because you just do that task and stop facing the cripling void of self-determination.

(another aside on bird-watching : in general I think the people who get obsessed with something minor which obviously is not deserving of that obsession are very silly; like triathletes, or hikers around here who try to "bag all the peaks", or people who travel around the world for one specific weird thing like birding or whatever. But in the end it seems to work for them in terms of quality of life. That is, I think it would be more reasonable if instead of training for your triathlon (which will often be miserable exercise and is not particularly good for your body), you instead just did some pleasant exercise that was actually more useful. The problem is that if you are not a wacko over-committed person who has this invented "has to", you just won't do it. Like I'm sure I would be happier if I went on a hike every week, but since it's just up to me, and I'm doing it only because I choose to, I wind up not doing it very often; on the other hand the goof-ball who decided he "has to" bag every peak in one year does do the hikes, and while that specific goal is retarded, it does force him to get out there. Obviously the standard "everything in moderation" is sound in theory, but in practice it just doesn't work, because if you are reasonable and moderate, it's hard to get out there).

(another example to beat this point to a pulp : it's easy to make fun of the "freds" on bicycles who track their heart rate and buy the fanciest bike shit, and generally over-obsess and make up goals for no reason; it would be nice if you could be more reasonable, you get just as much exercise on a slower bike, you don't need to fucking test your blood sugar if you are a recreational rider. It's very easy and trite for people like Bike Snob or Grant Peterson or Me to make fun of the freds and say that you should just "go ride". (as another example, obviously doing something like "bike to work month" is silly; if you want to bike to work, you can make that decision for yourself each day of the year, there's no reason to follow some organization's choice of month). However, if you are just reasonable and moderate and make your own decisions, you simply won't do it. It's too hard to make the right decision all the time, you won't have the motivation, you'll get lazy. In the end when you see the people who are out there riding at 6 AM in the rain, it's the nut-jobs, it's the people who invented some silly "have to", and in the end they are happier for it)

(of course the best form of made of "have to" is one that's at least semi-useful; like I "have to study hard and get into a good grad school"; having that goal can make the work fun and rewarding for a while; of course you eventually get disillusioned with that goal and realize it was perhaps all pointless; but the correct response is not to just give up on goals, but rather to invent a new one. (sometimes I try to get myself excited about some kind of made up goal, like I "have to" learn to fly an airplane, or I have to take a lot of artistic photographs, or I have to write some music, but it's hard for me to sustain the mental illusion).

Anyhoo, the relation is that some people use "do it for the family" as one of these made up goals to make their life easier. Like I "have to" get an SUV so I can drive all these kids around to their soccer and piano lessons and so on. Well, no you actually don't have to, but if it makes your life easier to pretend that you have to, then okay. This form of "do it for the family" is NOT what I was talking about in the main part of the post, but it is semi-related.

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old rants