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What the humans like is responsiveness
What do the humans like? Apparently, they like this woman ordering food in a slightly flirtatious manner at a food truck. A total of 1.9 million souls have clicked “heart” on this brief clip.
Okay, sure—on TikTok, that’s not a completely unusual number. But it’s a much more enthusiastic response than the other videos on this channel get, and the comments section reveals an unlikely fervor. “I wish man,” one guy comments, “I can only wish that God would bless me with a girl like this. I’d do anything for her bro.” Another remark: “I’ve never been so in love in this app on my life.”
Is it that she’s pretty? That can’t be it entirely. I’m aware of equally pretty women on the internet who try to get people to fall in love with them because it’s their job—influencers, porn stars, streamers, and so on. With all of their industriousness, charisma, and symmetricality, they do not get this kind of reception. And many of them are naked.
What sets this person apart? It’s simple: her insane responsiveness.
Whenever the halal truck guy says something—anything—to her, she reacts as if she’s just heard the most delightful inquiry in her life, worthy of an equally thoughtful and delightful response. “You from Brazil?” is usually the kind of question that merits an apathetic “no” or a displeased “yeah.” She says “I am Brazilian! Yes! Oi!” with a theatrical wave of the kind issued by dignitaries on parade floats. He follows it up with by asking, ludicrously enough, in an example of either low-quality banter or condescension, whether she knows Ronaldo—one of the most popular athletes in the world. She makes him look good by following it up with a joke about how “he’s my family member.” Talking with her is like dancing lead with a really good follow. And dancing with a really good follow is fantastic. They make you feel like their endless marvelousness is a product of your actions.
I have a good friend who is somewhat similar to this TikTok person. People fall in love with her like I’ve never seen before with anybody. Celebrities meet her at parties and invite her to private beaches after tracking her down on Instagram. Almost-strangers basically propose to her when we go out on the town. And she is quite pretty, but she also lives in LA, so there’s a lot of competition in that department. What she has, unlike a lot of Angeleno automata, is the same keen responsiveness. When you say anything at all, she turns her whole person towards you, and you are the fixed point of the universe. The moment after you speak, she replies in a way that makes it clear she’s listened to you with every ounce of her. I knew we would be friends when we were at the same perfume store, and I pointed out that she’d said five separate perfumes were her “favorite,” and she said, smilingly, locking eyes with me, “I’ll fucking kill you.”
You might dismiss this as a trick, but unless you genuinely love people and are comfortable in your own skin, it’s a really hard trick to pull off.
And lest you think this is just the domain of attractive women, I know a few not-entirely-handsome men who have the same gravitational pull. For example, there’s a guy in publishing I place in this category, a person who you’d never select as “the charismatic guy” from a lineup. He is remarkably compelling, largely because he seems captivated by everyone and everything around him. Everywhere he goes, there is more ambient energy. He is almost universally desired and liked, and he’s enjoyed a kind of meteoritic success that makes people suspicious until they meet him and are charmed like everyone else.
Everyone wants to know how to be liked. But I think we all know, actually, how to be liked, it’s just that it’s hard. It takes attention and openness, and the confidence to present your character like it’s a fun mask you’re wearing rather than a lesson you’re desperate to teach someone. If you have that, it’s simple: when people put energy into you, attune to it, and give them harmonious energy back.
But you can also delight people with responsiveness even if they’re not standing in front of you. Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, credits some of his success to a single email he wrote, the message that got sent out when you bought a CD. Customers went crazy for it. It’s worth quoting in full:
Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.
A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.
Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.
We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th.
I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as “Customer of the Year.” We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!
Now, this doesn’t have the same specificity exhibited by the aforementioned charming individuals. It’s a mass email. However, it still makes you feel unusually responded to. You’ve performed a normal act, buying something on the internet, and, in response, you get an unusual output.
A friend of mine once said: “If you put behavior into the world, you get behavior out.” It’s a lovely truism that isn’t always true. But the more you can make it true for your lovers, friends, customers, whatever, the more they will tend to have fun.
However, the power of responsiveness extends past the domain of social charm, it’s about more than making a giant pile of money selling CDs. I would argue that responsiveness is a core human need/desire. It is, perhaps, required for happiness. People are happy enough rich, and people are happy enough poor. But it’s hard to imagine anyone happy without a feeling that their actions have some impact, however small. Even if you’re not going to be remembered by history, you want to be remembered by your barista. The prisoner, though largely robbed of power, is probably happier if he can vex his captors, or skirt the rules somehow. Life is good if it squishes nicely when you poke it.
And if it doesn’t? Well, there is a phenomenon called “burnout,” where everything you once loved becomes ash, and the work that once compelled you no longer does. And, usually, people talk about burnout as if it’s a result of being overworked. But that doesn’t seem accurate; tons of people are happy for years working 70-hour work weeks, and even write achingly of the depths of hustle.
What if it’s partially a failure of responsiveness? Emmett Shear thinks something along these lines. He says that a major factor in burnout is “broken steering”: people feeling, for a long period of time, that their efforts to exert control don’t do anything. They show up to work, click their mouse, make suggestions, and nothing happens, and it’s hard to tell if their work ultimately matters. There is a classic phrase for this—being a “cog in the machine.” But there are even worse feelings than being a cog—at the very least, that role involves the transfer of mechanical energy. What’s worse is just feeling like a banana lying in the dust.
This feeling sucks even if you’re not working hard. For instance, once, in college, I had the cushiest job imaginable. I was paid to monitor how many people were using a computer lab. Hourly, I had to write down how many people were in there. Nobody even checked whether my numbers were accurate. I could just write down five random numbers at the end of the day. I got paid $16/hr. The dream, right?
I could not stand this job, and I’ve worked some shitty jobs. I liked it much less, for example, than working at a smelly fish-and-chip stand, in the summer, for an abusive cokehead. That job, I showed up to—it was interesting, at least. At the library, I skipped my shift entirely many times—half a dozen times before being caught.
It wasn’t that the job was boring. The right kind of boredom can be hypnotic, soothing. It’s that it was utterly ineffectual. Some university bureaucrat had decided to collect data on whether resources were being effectively used, but the figure I was capturing was a bad measure of this, and it would probably never be referred to, and I knew it. I was tasked to be the useless extension of someone else’s uselessness.
A sign that responsiveness is important is that when people don’t have it, they go out and get it.
Whenever I’m in a new chapter of my life, and I’m trying some ambitious project, usually I fall into a brief spell of video game addiction. Why? Trying an ambitious project usually requires temporarily leaving clarity behind, and entering into a period when reality is unevenly responsive. You have no idea whether it will work out, and the usual drips of reinforcement are not there. But good video games are extremely responsive. In my favorite video game, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, one wrong move means your minotaur gets evaporated by an acid-spewing bird, and once your character is dead, you can’t get it back. Nothing could be more clear. My friend DR MacIver calls video games “clarity porn,” a beautiful phrase.
Grasping for responsiveness is responsible for a lot of chaos. When relationships are locked in a seemingly unbreakable pattern, paramours cause drama. When people feel imprisoned by an impersonal environment, they vandalize. When the downtrodden feel that the political system doesn’t represent their interests, they elect lunatics who pretend to.
The present day exhibits an unusual combination of high and low responsiveness. Sure, we have these fun digital environments, where we can air our bizarre theories, and buy a hundred electric trucks. But, meanwhile, we’re all being pushed around by giant shaping influences that we can’t meaningfully respond to. We cannot, unlike most humans who have ever lived, modify our shelters to our liking: building codes make most modifications illegal. Our personalities are molded by algorithms that incentivize what gets clicks. Taxes exist, and we do not understand them. For most of us, saying that we’re cogs in a machine would significantly over-credit our influence.
We could have a more responsive future. New technology could help us beautifully disturb the universe—to express, relate, and build with fluency, regardless of our inborn abilities. We could terraform planets and taste colors and invent new emotions. But it could go the other way. Our needs might, in some eventuality, be frictionlessly, minimally, shoddily met by forces beyond our comprehension or control. To be happy in this latter kind of existence, we would probably need good drugs and lots of them. A frictionless, unresponsive life is simply not a human one—we are born troublemakers who need to make marks.
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