Likeability

I seem to be getting into a rhythm of posting new thoughts on Thursdays – given my usual subject matter, we could think of this as “Thriving Thursday”…

Anyway, because human beings are social animals, a particularly meaningful interpersonal affordance for us is likeability. Few people are such curmudgeons that they actively want to be disliked! Yet there can be a fine line between being likeable or wanting to be liked in the right ways vs. feeling an overwhelming need to be liked.

In Book VIII, Chapter 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendliness or likeability as an excellence of character that is opposed to surliness on the one hand and flattery on the other. He notes that most people enjoy being liked because it’s a sign of being honored or valued by other people. Naturally, there’s a question of who exactly you want to like you: Do you want your enemies to like you? People you don’t respect? Everyone? You can’t please all the people all the time, so you need to make some choices about whose esteem you value.

As always, it’s essential to find a beautifully right balance, here between not caring enough about whether other people like you and caring too much in a needy manner. Of course there are considerations of simple prudence: in order to get ahead in life you need to get along with others, especially in modern, team-based working environments but also in your neighborhood, community, profession, family, and so on (while recognizing that these interpersonal contexts can be unhealthy, manipulative, or downright toxic). We might think of a balanced concern with others’ opinions as a kind of self-possession. Many ancient philosophers, including Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics counseled this quality. Yet self-possession can easily verge off into a haughty attitude, just as the desire to be liked can verge off into a fawning attitude.

It seems to me that being liked or not liked isn’t primary because, as the Stoics would say, it’s outside your control. Instead, consider that old line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: to thine own self be true. That is: hold to your own principles of conduct so that you’ll keep from going astray. For instance, if you’re a manager in an organization, you might be tempted to make your employees happy at any cost (full pay with no work!). Yet that would be a recipe for disaster, because they each have their own standards of happiness (fairness matters), your organization insists on results (productivity matters), you might get demoted (success matters), etc.

One last thought: what someone likes today might not be what they like or appreciate 20 years from now. Many of us recall a parent, teacher, or manager who set high standards and challenged us to go beyond what was easy. The experience of meeting those expectations might not have been fun or pleasant at the time, but your future self probably thanks you for having expanded your capabilities back then. In our world of immediate feedback and the ever-lamentable “like button” it can be difficult to maintain this kind of long-term perspective, which is why having your own stable principles and worldview is so important.

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