Discover more from Aaron Renn
Newsletter #16: Building Relationships
Welcome back the Masculinist, the newsletter about the intersection of Christianity and masculinity.
Social Media Marketing Pro-Tip
I mentioned in MASC #15 that this newsletter got a huge boost from a mention by Rod Dreher. One of my guiding principles is to only critique people in the public square, not random pastors or the like.
There are many reasons for this I listed. But one other practical one is that when you engage with public figures and then they engage with you back, it helps to build your audience by spreading the word about you to their followers. I didn’t plan it that way, but that’s what happened with Dreher.
I should first mention that unlike with my professional work, I’m not fully applying this strategy with the Masculinist. This is an email newsletter for one thing, not my public web site or a newspaper op-ed. So it inherently will draw less attention. That’s by design. Also, I would have arranged to have that sent to Rod myself if I were specifically trying to get him to write about it. Even so, the fact that I engaged with his Benedict Option idea ultimately got his attention.
Social media marketing is about getting other people to spread the word about you to their networks. The best way to get them to do that is to engage with them. The highest value people to engage with have a bigger audience and rep than you do. They can really be a signal booster. But you don’t want to pick someone too far above you, because then you can’t get his attention. A tweet from Donald Trump would be explosive for me, for example. But getting his attention is an impossible dream.
Sadly, positive engagement is much less likely to generate return engagement than critique or trolling. The big exception is book reviews. Write a positive but constructive review of someone’s book, and it’s in his best interest to make sure people see it. My mention of Dreher’s Benedict Option was in this vein. Most people have Google alerts set up about themselves, but there’s no shame in emailing someone a link to a review of their book you’ve written, particularly if it’s a positive one. I’ve done a ton of book reviewing over the years.
Whether you want to go negative is up to you, but I can’t deny negativity’s effectiveness. I’ve seen it play out time and time again. (Look at how Megyn Kelly and Trump used a “feud” to build each other’s profile up during the election. The recent Trump-LaVar Ball spat is also in this genre – a mutually beneficial troll game). That’s probably also part of why my critique posts generate more responses than my positive ones. We love the negative more than the positive.
For me personally, I have traditionally rarely written hard core negative takes, though have done it on occasion when I thought it was warranted. This newsletter is in a more negative world/agonistic frame, so is likely to contain more direct critiques than I’ve historically given – fair ones, I hope. These critiques are less about getting attention than in trying to change some conventional wisdom views. You can’t change them unless you critique them.
In any case, if you want to build up your own audience in the social media world, engage with others and especially upwards to people who are above you in the pecking order. In my experience, engaging upwards (other than just hurling insults) is something I don’t see a lot of people doing. We tend to instinctively stick to our peer group.
Living in this world, especially in a big city, you constantly hear about how lonely people are. I am by nature an introverted person. I’m not shy. But I am someone whose batteries recharge when I’m alone and get drained by engaging with people in many settings. I’ve always had acquaintances and friends, but never really had much skill at creating and building relationships. I wouldn’t say I was lonely, but I was pretty much always one of the most peripherally attached members of any social group I was part of.
I first started learning how to intentionally create relationships when I briefly lived in Rhode Island. This was a pretty bleak time of my life personally for me. I was also pretty detached from the people around me because I was a newcomer to the state. I joined a church and even went to a community group, but I was not particularly engaged or connected. A guy named Josh observed this and took it upon himself to make a commitment to come to hang out with me once per week. That conscious decision to come see me on a regular schedule rather quickly created a relationship.
Now Josh was much more interpersonally talented than me, but this one simple idea was like a light bulb that went off in my head. Josh showed me how you actually go about intentionally creating a relationship with someone who may be tough to reach.
I later put this to good use. There was a guy who came to church who had severe epilepsy. It was a church of mostly very young people, but he was in his 50s. It was a mostly conservative church, but he was militantly and intolerantly liberal. Possibly because of epilepsy-related problems he had a violent temper and sometimes had outbursts where you weren’t sure he wasn’t going to attack people. He couldn’t drive and so needed people to take him everywhere. He was a tough customer.
He had a tendency to boomerang in and out of the church. One time when he was not attending I reached out to him to get together for pizza, probably out of guilt honestly. He ended up coming back to church. Naturally, I got nominated to be his chauffeur and all-around buddy.
I’ll admit I initially wasn’t super interested but did it anyway. I repeated what Josh had done for me: I decided to just go hang out with him once a week. This guy was far outside of my experience. I honestly didn’t have any clue about how to really deal with him.
It was an incredibly humbling experience, and valuable for that. It was like being told, “You think you’re so smart, eh? Do you think you know what policies the President of the United States ought to be following? Do you think you can fix what’s wrong with our cities? You want ‘to change the world’? How about first see if you can change this one person’s life.”
To be honest, I’m not sure that I did. One thing I can say though. It was rewarding. Although I was surprised by it myself, that guy turned out to be my best friend in Rhode Island. I really enjoyed our friendship and hanging out with him. And I think it meant a lot to him that there was one guy, a Christian, who would not abandon a relationship with him after one of his outbursts or with all his problems.
I’ve applied that “just go see somebody once a week” technique more times since then. And it works great. Maybe for typical extroverted people, it’s not necessary to set up some specific cadence like that. But it helped an introvert like me to have the rule to follow.
The Rule of Three
Of course, in this world, there are often people you’d like to have something of a relationship with, but can’t see every week. How do you do that? I’ve come up with a rule of thumb that it takes three meetings with someone before you can say you have a relationship with him.
I suspect most people in the business world, have stacks of business cards from people I’ve met at conferences or other events over the years. Most of them I never saw again, and I certainly never would say I had a relationship with them. Sometimes I’d even send a follow-up note, but that almost never led to anything.
What I’ve discovered is that if you make a point of getting together in person with someone you meet at these affairs two more times within a reasonable period of time (say six months to a year), then you have a relationship of sorts. It will not be much of one, but it exists and you can build it from there. When I say get together with, I am talking about a 1:1 coffee, lunch, etc. One of the two can be with a small group, but at least one of them should be 1:1. It would also be helpful if you had something of value to give the person, such as information of mutual interest that the other person may or may not know.
Now I’m not claiming this is the magic formula. It will also probably only work if the other person is actually open to having a relationship with you. As with social media marketing, if you want to try to get to someone far above your level it’s going to be tougher. That’s not really what I’m talking about here.
So if there’s someone you meet at an event or something and you want to create a relationship with him, make sure you get face time with him twice more within a year. Yes, this means you might have to travel.
For Those Who Are Lonely
If you are one of those people in a big city who is feeling lonely or disconnected, I’ve got a nearly sure-fire way to change things. Go look for someone who is even lonelier and more hurting than you, and go be that person’s friend.
I’m always astonished that there could be so many lonely people in the city. This would seem to be an easy problem to solve; just go be each other’s friends. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. I think in part that’s because we’re always looking for relationships that are going to deliver value to us, instead of us looking for how we’re going to deliver value to others. We always want to network up. We seldom want to network down. (Though we often stay in our lanes on social media, as I noted above).
This is an area where I part ways with a lot of the secular self-help gurus. Most of those guys tend to recommend pruning the deadweight relationships out of your life, and purging the losers, energy drainers, etc. There’s a place for that if you’re in unhealthy relationships. But Christians simply can’t apply that as a rule for life. We are called to be there for those who have nothing to offer us (or at least that we think don’t have anything to offer).
Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35). Living in New York, I constantly see people who are obviously lonely and looking for friendship (and romance, and other kinds of relationships). I see them in my own church. Presumably, there are many people in NYC I don’t meet who are even more disconnected. There are a lot of hurting people in the big city.
The best way to find a friend for yourself if you’re lonely is to be a friend to someone who’s even lonelier and more hurting than you. As I discovered, this often isn’t even very hard if you’re simply willing to regularly spend time with the person. The relationship itself will then often just happen. (If you have some severe social interaction problem or disability, this might still be very challenging for you. I want to acknowledge that some people do have genuine problems here).
I think you’ll find that when you think you’re helping someone else, you actually end up helping yourself too. That’s the paradoxical nature of the Christian life. We’re called to do things contrary to our natural (sinful) inclinations. But this has a tendency to end up being the best policy for ourselves over the long haul. The gospel isn’t a rulebook for life or a set of if-then precepts for getting what we want. The law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. But God’s ways aren’t just arbitrary commands designed to make our practice jumping through hoops. They are also the best path to human flourishing properly understood. Even some of the secular self-help people get it when they point out that you first have to give before you can get it.
So don’t be surprised that if you decide to befriend someone in need that you think has nothing to offer you that you end up getting way more out of it than you ever thought you would.
The Unconsidered Option: Leaving Town
For those who live in big cities, it can hard to make friends there. Global cities are often lonely outposts. The Guardian noted a study that found 53% of London youth had experienced depression because they felt alone, and they also shared a number of people’s letters on the topic. Smaller places can have their own issues. I have heard complaints about some Midwestern cities that newcomers can find it very difficult to make friends because everybody already has their friends they went to high school with.
If you find yourself in a place where you try but fail to find friendship or a spouse, one option that ought to be evaluated is leaving. There’s no guarantee that this will solve your problems. In most cases the common factor in all of our problems is us, so moving won’t solve it. But I’m amazed that it’s often not even a consideration for people.
I live in New York. I see a lot of people here who have no particular reason to be here. It’s one thing to come to experience the big city for a few years, try to make it on Broadway, etc. But I see people who are past all that and have rooted themselves here with no obvious compelling reason (such as an attachment to an industry that is based in New York, like investment banking). For those folks who then struggle to find friends, a husband/wife, etc., some re-evaluation of their location decision would seem to be warranted.
Hazlitt: The Legion Lonely
And as if feeling lonely wasn’t bad enough, it also turns out that loneliness and isolation are shockingly bad for your health and wellbeing. The quality of your friendships is the largest predictor of your happiness. Social isolation weakens your immune system, raises your blood pressure, messes with your sleep, and can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to the authors of a widely cited meta-analysis, loneliness on its own can increase your chances of an early death by 30 percent and “heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.” And in practical terms, being in contact with nobody in an emergency, like the men in the Chicago heat wave, can kill you in an instant.
That’s why Schwartz and others say the best way for men to forge and maintain friendships is through built-in regularity — something that is always on the schedule. This worked well for me over the past year (however unintentionally) with a college buddy named Matt. We signed up to run last April’s Boston Marathon together, and even though he lives in Chicago, we were in regular contact about our training, his trip to Boston, etc., and our relationship became stronger than ever, even though our best and deepest conversation occurred during the four-plus hours it took us to get from Hopkinton to Boston, side by side. We repeated the process with the Chicago Marathon in October, this time in less than four hours (thank God for the flat Midwest), but we haven’t had much contact since then, because we’re no longer going through anything together. I texted him to congratulate him after the Cubs won the World Series. He did the same for me after the Patriots won the Super Bowl. But I can’t remember the last time I talked to Matt since. We have no further plans. That would take initiative.
Harvard Business Review: Work and the Loneliness Epidemic
In the News
Rod Dreher: Losing Marriage, Losing the Faith
[A reader writes to Rod]:
The two assumptions I’ve consistently seen among evangelicals my age (18 – 25) about the subject [marriage] are:
1) Marriage is an optional lifestyle choice, and the primary risk young Christians face with respect to marriage is putting too much of a premium on pursuing it and making it into an “idol.” (The latter part has especially been reinforced by church ministry leaders.)
2) Children aren’t an essential part of marriage, but also an optional lifestyle choice, and anyone who says that a married couple has an obligation to either have children or, if infertile, make their marriage fruitful through things like ministry, adoption, etc., is a crank. Marriage is primarily about the relationship between the married couple.
In summary, the viewpoint is essentially that marriage is like buying a nice house – not a bad thing to do if you feel so inclined, but certainly not something that most people need to do. Children are even more of an optional commodity.
This echoes what I observe. I frequently hear people claim that the Evangelical church has made marriage into an idol, but when I look around at Christian writings and teachings on the subject, I almost exclusively hear the exact opposite. People are told they shouldn’t want or value marriage too much.
The Economist: Why would-be parents should choose to get married
You could make enough confetti for a summer of weddings with all the academic papers that show how much children gain from being brought up in stable, loving families, and how much they suffer when those families break down. Culture and customs make little difference. In Japan, four-fifths of single-parent households emerge when couples divorce—a much higher share than in the West, where people usually slip into single parenthood without marrying. Japanese children living with only one parent nonetheless perform significantly worse in school tests, just as children from single-parent families do in Europe and America. In poorer countries, family breakdown can kill. According to one recent estimate, the chance that an African child will die before turning five is about 25-30 per 1,000 for those born into stable families, but 35-40 per 1,000 for the children of single, divorced or widowed parents.
Marriage is not always good for children. They do not benefit when a parent marries somebody who is not their mother or father, and seem to suffer if the parent they live with cycles through several relationships. What they seem to need most is for their biological parents to stick together. And one strong claim that can be made for marriage is that it appears to glue parents together more tightly than any other arrangement.
Scott Winship/Social Capital Project: Love, Marriage, Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing – a very interesting study from a former colleague of mine. The rise in out of wedlock births is driven mostly by a rise in singles and a decline in shotgun marriages. Half of OOW births are intentional pregnancies.
Prospective parents can filter and sort potential donors by race and ethnic background, hair and eye color, and education level. They also can get much more personal information: audio of the donor’s voice, photos of the donor as a child and as an adult, and written responses to questions that read like college-application essays.
Want your sperm donor to have a B.A. in political science? Want your egg donor to love animals? Want the genes of a Division I athlete? All of these are possible. Prospective parents overwhelmed by all the choices can leave it to the heavens and pick a donor by astrological sign.
NYT: Millennials become parents – The Millennials, having underachieved as a generation despite being the subject of immense hype and affirmation, continue to believe that they know better than everyone else how to do everything – even when Mom and Dad are paying for it.
The Atlantic: Brotherhood of Losers
Even if the alt-right doesn’t survive in its current form, a generation of young white men now harbor the dangerous belief that they have no future—a belief that will be that much more dangerous if it proves to be true.
A question for readers to ponder: Why did 125 million women buy a copy of 50 Shades of Grey? 125 million! This makes it one of the single biggest selling books in all of human history. Why was that?