Sunday, December 06, 2009

On effort, visible and hidden

Paul Gowder asks: "What is 'trying too hard'"? I answered, "Trying too hard, in any context, is when the effort is visible." While I like how I phrased this, I'm not sure if I agree with myself on this one.

Paul is right that visible effort can, in some cases, contribute to, rather than detract from, results. There's truth to the adage that 90% of life is showing up. Most everyday and workplace conflicts are best resolved by showing that you're taking a task at hand seriously, and indeed by taking the task seriously, whatever the results. Students will often ask - implicitly or explicitly - for an improved grade by pointing out how hard they worked on an assignment, in the hopes of that elusive 'A for effort'. Futile, one might think. But a classmate of mine in college issued this complaint and got her grade raised, thereby leading me to lose confidence - temporarily! - in the educational system.

In fact, visible effort often serves people well in situations one would expect it to do the opposite. A situation fellow UChicago alums know all too well: the kid who declares, whenever tangentially relevant, that he is an Intellectual. He might even wear a Blazer. (For whatever reason, women do not go in for this.) One would expect those who announce their braininess to fail academically, yet often enough, they succeed. Such men are not lying about credentials or inclinations, but are merely discussing them openly, whereas some people might be more inclined to discuss their plans for a new pair of ballet flats than their dissertation topic unless otherwise prompted. Insert gender analysis here, but not all intellectually-inclined men are of this type, so gender isn't everything.

As for trying too hard in the context of dating... Part - most - of what's understood as 'trying too hard' is when someone adopts the opposite of the clichéd expectation of what their gender is supposed to want from a relationship. Meaning, women who come on strong re: hopes for marriage and kids on the first date don't impress, nor do men who ask for sex immediately and with no segue or anything, even when the man wants to settle down and the woman wants some fun that evening, simply because tired insistence on scripts reads as dull. But! Women who offer sex 'too' soon (or who hint at this with an over-the-top sexy outfit, references to a complete lack of interest in 'a relationship', etc.), and men who announce an interest in commitment and things domestic before a 'reasonable' time (or who hint at abilities as a provider through discussions of how well their accounting firms are doing), are seen as trying too hard to please. Here, trying too hard is a problem because it's not directed at an individual, just at a script which the other person may find irrelevant. The turn-off is not so much the effort as the fact that the effort is designed to please A Man or A Woman, as opposed to a particular man or woman. The 'trying too hard' is an effort not to impress, but to be generically impressive. Visible efforts to impress a particular person, assuming that person is somewhat interested, have to go quite far to be deemed creepy; even the slightest visible efforts to impress generically tend to seem excessive.


Miss Self-Important said...

"He might even wear a Blazer. (For whatever reason, women do not go in for this.)"
Yes, why is this? I own three blazers (though one is purple velvet--excuse: thrift store...). I still aspire to be a woman who wears blazers, but it's true that only one actually looks good, and then only as outerwear.

Also, I recall that in high school, any visible effort at all was too much effort--it demonstrated that you lacked "natural intelligence" and were probably Asian (ie, a robot). The general equation ran: Success - Effort = Intelligence.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"in high school, any visible effort at all was too much effort"

To other students, yes, but teachers I remember as divided on the matter.

Miss Self-Important said...

Right, teachers were taken in by even melodramatic displays of effort. I mean, among students.

Withywindle said...


Paul Gowder said...

Extremely interesting.

My experience from TAing is that I'm actually lots more critical of the self-consciously "intellectual" people -- but I can't tell whether that's because their tigers are actually paper and I can discern it or because I'm hypervigilant for pretentious emptiness.

(An extremely fashionable bff -- the one who talked me into the jeans -- has convinced me of the merits of sports coats and blazers, but on general looking put-together grounds rather than on appearing intellectual grounds... is this misguided?)

How does the object of attempts to please observationally distinguish efforts to please women/men in general from efforts to please this particular woman/man?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

MSI, Paul,

Nothing wrong with blazers - they can look quite chic. The problem comes when the blazer is meant to say 'I'm clearly so much more intelligent and well-read than Mr. North Face sitting next to me.'

"How does the object of attempts to please observationally distinguish efforts to please women/men in general from efforts to please this particular woman/man?"

All kinds of ways. Take gifts. There are gifts purchased for A Woman (or there wouldn't be diamond shops, flower shops...), and then there are gifts purchased for A Person. There are also, from early on, some clues that the target of efforts is Some Man or Some Woman - with men, this will include taking a woman out to a too-fancy restaurant, and with women, it will manifest itself as expressing whenever possible a lighthearted indifference to 'where this relationship is going.' (As the brilliant Dan Savage points out, even casual relationships are typically try-outs for potentially serious ones, and this cuts across gender and sexual orientation.)