Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Socially Confident Women 2: or How I Decided that Professor X was Having an Affair with his Secretary

My PhD research has lately become more multi-disciplinary, and I have started working with a couple of professors in the physical sciences. This is how I came to meet Σ.

My grad school relies heavily on external funding streams that tend to be directed towards specific research projects. (This may be common among graduate schools. I woldn't know.) Thus, the departments tend to be organized around these research projects. Mature research groups even have their own offices with their names on the doors, and their own clerical staff.

Σ is such a staff member. Her cubicle is in the foyer to the offices of the research group headed by Professor X. My own research started taking me to the offices of Professor X last week. On a couple of occasions, X wasn't there, and I was left dealing with Σ.

There are two salient features of Σ. First, she is objectively quite beautiful. Without dwelling on the details, I'm pretty sure she would score an 8 on the Roissy scale. Second, and more to the point, she seems to possess outsized social confidence: full eye-contact, big smile, and attentive as if I was someone who mattered. (I'm not.)

This was very . . . unnerving. Don't get me wrong: nothing strokes a man's ego like the attention of a beautiful young woman, and Φ likes having his ego stroked. But Φ is also accutely aware that there is no upside to extending these interactions. For one thing, nothing in my experience leads me to think that my entertainment value is very high to anyone outside a narrow set of intimates. To the extent that anything about Σ's responsiveness is a function of Φ personally, it's sure to wear out pretty quickly. And second, even if it didn't, Φ is, you know, married.

Mmmm . . . as you can see, Φ's rat brain has evolved to attempt to read far more than warranted into female attentiveness. Fortunately, Φ's analytical brain overpowers rat brain, discerns the true significance of female friendliness, and often has spared Φ much ritual humiliation. Herewith, then, we develop five categories of circumstances in which you can find female friendliness.

1. The woman is attracted to you. This actually happened once back in '95. Sometimes there's just no accounting for taste.

2. The woman works in a job with some kind of hospitality aspect in which she creates the illusion of being attracted to you. This is why the dental technicians of my college years were alwyas really interested in engineering. See the South Park Raisins episode for how this works.

3. A woman's experience has bred a warm personality. Sometimes this happens, but it's pretty rare. I can, in fact, think of several women I have known, including Mrs. Φ, in which this was the case. I had a couple of students that fell in this category, although because I was faculty, and had built rapport with them in a classroom situation, they may have been special cases. On the other hand, I also heard favorable mention of this woman's qualities among other students. There are several theories as to what causes this. The blogger formerly known as Spungen said that it sprang directly from a woman's social power, specifically the power to punish any male that stepped out of line. Or it may be that such a woman hadn't any negative experiences with men (the Amish girls may fall into that category), or that she understands men well enough to interact with them in a mature way. Whatever the reason, there are very few of these women.

4. A woman is unattractive. Sad, but the personalities of unattractive women just develop better than those of attractive ones. In my late twenties, right around the time I met the future Mrs. Φ, my status was sufficiently improved that I had quite a few female friends with "good personalities", at least two of whom, I was to learn later, definitely fell into category one, above. But they were invariably women that I was not attracted to.

5. A woman is already attached. I remember being amazed all the way back in high school how girls that were cold and bitchy suddenly mellowed once they had acquired steady boyfriends. More recently, once I myself was married and began circulating regularly among married couples, I realized that married women were much more relaxed, confident, and friendly than I ever thought single women were. But there is an important caveat:

5a. An attached woman knows you through her husband/boyfriend. This is important, and directly relevant to the case at hand. The social confidence that being attached gives a woman is most operational when the social context is one in which her husband is well-integrated. I wouldn't make any generalizations about attached women that we might meet in her day-to-day work. But when we met them as part of a couple, as at church, or at work socials where the men bring their wives, then the women have little difficulty socializing in a relaxed and confident manner.

So, let's look at the present case.

We can safely dismiss categories 1 and 4. Two doesn't really apply either; Σ's primary job is secretarial, and only incidentally reception. And I am a student, not a client, so there really isn't any point for her to take the trouble of inducing any particular warm feelings in me. Category 3 is possible, but statistically unlikely. Σ is not Amish, for one thing. For another, Σ doesn't appear to wield extraordinary social power in her role as secretary.

Which leaves category 5. But as we have seen, category five only applies if she perceives the primary relationship to be between me and the man to whom she is attached. And Professor X is the only person she knows me to be working with. Plus, Professor X is a likely candidate. He has status (head of a research group); he is fit and, as far as I can judge these things, attractive. And to top it off, his manner is giddy and distracted . . . exactly like I would imagine a man to be who has a hot girl half his age.


trumwill said...

Category 3a. Some people I think have a natural warmth and it's a question of whether or not circumstance sucks it out of them.

She could be in that category.

Erik said...

As Category 3 is not as unlikely as Σ thinks, Σ is either overly pessimistic, unlucky, or perhaps both.

What does Mrs. Σ think?

Erik said...

Sorry, mixed my Latin.

Please replace all references to Σ with Φ.

Φ said...

Erik: it's Greek, not Latin. And in reference to my luck, did you mean to say category 1?

Trumwill: I would even go so far as to say that most women have the capacity for warmth, but that the expression of that warmth is highly situation-dependent. It's the rare woman who overcomes her situation to be warm anyway.

trumwill said...

I agree, but I would say that some people have more natural expressive of warmth than others. I can be a very warm person, but expressing that with people I don't know can be something of a drain. I don't know whether it's biological (introverted like Dad) or whether I consider warmth to be a sort of vulnerability that increases my anxiety and drains me. But I do think that such things come very naturally to some people.

My mother would warmly greet a light-post if she felt that the light-post would understand and that she wouldn't be carted off to a mental ward.

Erik said...

You are of course's been a long day.

No, I meant cat 3. You said "Category 3 is possible, but statistically unlikely." I'm just suggesting that it is not as unlikely as you think. Is it possible that normal social confidence looks like "outsized social confidence" from your vantage point?

Also, I think your Amish girls might belong to category 5, but in a slightly different way. They're not "attached" in that they're married but they probably find themselves to be "off the market" because of their obvious difference of religion/society. So they can let their guard down because they don't have to worry about how people will take them.

In any event, interesting thoughts. I've been following your beta & female psychoanalysis for a little while (I'm somewhat beta myself) but haven't had the time to respond with clear thoughts. Thanks for letting me comment.