Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Compromising is rational

I'm growing my hair out. I've gone back and forth on my hair length a million times and usually what happens is that I start trying to grow it out and then I get so annoyed with it that I decide to just cut it all off (for any readers who don't really understand what I'm talking about: long hair is great if it's long enough to pull up, out of my face and off my neck, but there's always an in-between stage where your hair is long enough to get in the way but too short to put up - that's the point where I usually get impatient and just cut it off). But this time, I'm trying to stick it out and put up with the in-between stage. Why? Because my boyfriend likes long hair (by the way, what is up with guys and long hair?). But the other night, when I made some comment about growing out my hair, my boyfriend said, "Are you doing that because I said I think you'd look good with longer hair?" and my instant, knee-jerk reaction was to say, "No, of course not!" I mean, god forbid I do something for him that I wouldn't choose to do on my own, right? Of course, growing out my hair is a pretty minor thing but it's slippery slope - today, it's my hair; tomorrow, who knows?

I know I'm particularly sensitive about this because in past relationships, I have often suppressed my own needs, trying to be whatever I thought would make the guy like me more. And in a lot of cases, I would convince myself that whatever it was I was doing, I was doing just as much for me as for him (case in point: I actually DID enjoy hiking several miles every weekend but the fact that I haven't done it a single time since Mr. Outdoors Guy moved away tells me something about my real motivation). But over the last several years, being single has allowed me to do exactly what I want to do without worrying about anyone else's opinion or feelings and this allowed me to discover what I truly want/like/need, in a way that I know I couldn't really figure out while in a relationship.

But my knee-jerk reaction to my boyfriend's comment about my hair got me thinking about compromises. One of the core principles of economics is that rational people make decisions by comparing costs and benefits - if the benefits outweigh the costs, then you do it; if the benefits are less than the costs, then you don't. That may sound incredibly obvious but I have often found it a powerful aide in making sense of other people's behavior. If someone does something that I don't understand, I ask myself what benefit could they be getting from that action, or is it that they do not perceive the costs in the same way I do? Usually, this helps me get to a place where, even if I don't agree with the choice, I can at least understand it.

Unsurprisingly, I also tend to apply cost-benefit analysis in my own life, sometimes in ways that I'm sure seem strange to other people. And while it may not sound very romantic, I've found that thinking about my relationship in terms of costs and benefits can be helpful. Like the costs and benefits of cutting my hair - in the past, I've always gotten to a point where the costs of dealing with it outweighed the benefits and so I cut it off. But now, although the costs are basically the same, there is an added benefit, i.e., my boyfriend thinking I look good. And that's enough to tip the scale toward continuing to grow it out. The totally geeky, economist way to put it is that we have interdependent utility functions - his happiness contributes to my happiness and vice versa. I think the trick to not going overboard, to not compromising so much that I feel like I'm only doing something because of him, is having a rock-solid understanding of what MY costs and benefits really are before I start factoring him in. So yeah, I guess you could say that I am growing out my hair "because of him" but that doesn't mean I've suddenly become a spineless, irrational ninny.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Reining in defensiveness

Clever Elsie has a really thoughtful Singletude post about how to respond when someone asks 'why are you single', pointing out that giving the benefit of the doubt is likely to be a better approach than getting defensive:

As offensive as it can be, though, if you're so inclined, it can be a great opportunity to educate the nosy party about singles. Something I've noticed over the past year and am still coming to terms with is that many people who ask questions like this aren't aware that they're offensive or--hello?--awkward. Sometimes they imagine you must be upset about your singleness (usually because they would be if they were single) and want to encourage you or help in some way. Other times, they may be genuinely curious. They may even just be making small talk and don't know what else to say.

Does that mean it's okay for them to ask why you're single? If it's not okay with you, of course not. But if they're not asking with intent to hurt or irritate, then they're asking out of ignorance, and the best way to combat ignorance is with knowledge--in this case, your firsthand knowledge of being single... As much as you might relish firing back with a real zinger, a candid explanation...could help a singlist person (i.e., someone who has a bias against singles or being single) open his or her mind and understand how "single" can be a good choice, not an unfortunate mistake. It might also help them realize how a question like "Why are you single?" can deeply affect someone. On the other hand, a sarcastic comeback could put them on the defensive or make you seem defensive, reinforcing their unfavorable attitudes about singles.

Her point about people asking out of ignorance made me think about the questions I sometimes get as an Asian-American (for example, 'what are you' or 'where are you from' when the real question they mean to ask is 'what is your racial/ethnic background' ). The person asking usually has no idea how offensive their question is, or that the question itself is rooted in racist assumptions, and every time it happens, I have to consciously remind myself that they probably don't mean to be rude and I should think of it as an opportunity to educate them. At the same time, I have to admit that a big part of me is annoyed that I even have to go through that thought process. That is, why is it my job to educate them, to choose my words carefully so I don't directly suggest that they are racist? Of course I know that the alternative (i.e., saying what is really going through my mind) would be totally unproductive, but it would also be so much easier (well, for me at least). Along similar lines, when I encounter singlist attitudes, I generally try to find a diplomatic way to reply but sometimes I think having to make that effort is, in itself, annoying. Fortunately, it doesn't happen to me all that often. It would be nice to think that we will eventually reach a point where this educating process won't be necessary...