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Nice Guys Finish Where?

Emerging conventional wisdom in the progressive blogosphere seems to be that soi-disant "nice guys" who whine about how nice guys can't get laid are, in fact, whiny losers who more often than not aren't as nice as they think. No doubt that's true to some extent, and the linked posts make many good points. On the other hand, I feel compelled to raise some contrary considerations. It seems pretty robustly true that male sexual success is correlated, in part, with one's position in various social and economic hierarchies. At the same time, it's pretty clear that "niceness" is not a very useful attribute for climbing to the top of your average hierarchy. This is true whether you're talking about a peer set of standard-issue assholes (a frat house, a bond trading firm) or the totally non-standard assholes of professional political punditry. Gregariousness is rewarded in these contexts, but not actual niceness in the sense of morality, kindness, etc. Going too far off on the not-nice extreme, of course, can prove counterproductive, but the optimal level of niceness is not maximum niceness.

So you can see how it could be true that nicer-than-median men might wind up being less-than-median in attractiveness and you can certainly see how nicer-than-median men might not wind up enjoying the above-average levels of success they apparently feel they deserve.

But the true oddity of this whole discourse is the notion that sex and/or companionship is some kind of prize that the world owes to you in exchange for behaving well. Suicide bombers get their 72 virgins for sacrificing their life in jihad and nice guys are owed, apparently, something similar on the planet earth. The sexist presumption that women are commodities aside, even real commodities aren't distributed like that, so I don't see why anyone would be surprised by the realities here. And of course as Kant would tell you (I think) if you're acting nice because you think it will make people want to have sex with you you're not really being nice according to any conventional way of thinking about it -- you're trying and failing to be manipulative. Now naturally enough, the successfully manipulative will (by definition) have more success than the unsuccessfully manipulative. One can see an inclination to view failed efforts at manipulation as non-manipulative and, therefore, "nice" but that's self-deception.

July 12, 2005 | Permalink

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» Rembrance of Things Past from A Beautiful Soul
I do take continuing insult at the implied notion that I'm some kind of "jerk," because I attempt to do that most ridiculously dickish maneuver, which is to try to get [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 12, 2005 6:18:50 PM

» Rembrance of Things Past from A Beautiful Soul
I do take continuing insult at the implied notion that I'm some kind of "jerk," because I attempt to do that most ridiculously dickish maneuver, which is to try to get [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 12, 2005 6:20:08 PM

» Rembrance of Things Past from A Beautiful Soul
...but I do take continuing insult at the implied notion that I'm some kind of "jerk," because I attempt to do that most ridiculously dickish maneuver, which is to try to get laid. [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 12, 2005 6:21:07 PM

» Rembrance of Things Past from A Beautiful Soul
...but I do take continuing insult at the implied notion that I'm some kind of "jerk," because I attempt to do that most ridiculously dickish maneuver, which is to try to [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 12, 2005 6:25:11 PM

» Dilemma of the Nice Guy from Ezra Klein
After seeing Lindsay, Matt, and Scott discuss the issue, I'm convinced that the central dilemma faced by nice guys has been missed. This constitutes a blogospheric emergency of such importance that I must use my position as Ezra's guestblogger to make... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 12, 2005 10:13:02 PM

» Dilemma of the Nice Guy from Ezra Klein
After seeing Lindsay, Matt, and Scott discuss the issue, I'm convinced that the central dilemma faced by nice guys has been missed. This constitutes a blogospheric emergency of such importance that I must use my position as Ezra's guestblogger to make... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 12, 2005 10:42:30 PM

» Dilemma of the Nice Guy from Ezra Klein
After seeing Lindsay, Matt, and Scott discuss the issue, I'm convinced that the central dilemma faced by nice guys has been missed. This constitutes a blogospheric emergency of such importance that I must use my position as Ezra's guestblogger to make... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 12, 2005 10:44:54 PM

» In Defense of the Nice Guy from One and Four
Time for me to jump on the bandwagon and discuss the phenomena of "nice guys finish last". There seems to be a backlash brewing against the proverbial nice guy (as if we needed it). Lindsay Beyerstein, it seems, made the... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 13, 2005 12:46:01 PM

» In Defense of the Nice Guy from One and Four
Time for me to jump on the bandwagon and discuss the phenomena of "nice guys finish last". There seems to be a backlash brewing against the proverbial nice guy (as if we needed it). Lindsay Beyerstein, it seems, made the... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 13, 2005 12:54:59 PM

» BlogViews: Arnold Finish First, Nice Guys Finish L from Now That's Progress
With everyone hot and heavy about Rove, just a couple other blog topics to note today... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 13, 2005 2:51:10 PM

» BlogViews: Arnold Finish First, Nice Guys Finish L from Now That's Progress
With everyone hot and heavy about Rove, just a couple other blog topics to note today... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 13, 2005 2:52:59 PM

Comments

Nice.

Posted by: theorajones | Jul 12, 2005 3:48:02 PM

Hmmm, I think the connection to deserving isn't so fatuous, since said people probably believe as nice people, they would make better partners. So it's a question of why niceness, which for optimal relationships should be correlated with getting a date, instead appears negatively correlated.

As well, our culture presents us with no end of examples of explicitly not-nice-men being the ones who receive sexual favors. Whether this is born out in high school, college, or the workplace is up to debate. But watch one weeknight of sitcoms and WB dramas, and you'll start believing mean guys have all the girls too.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Jul 12, 2005 4:11:05 PM

Funny no one ever talks about how nice girls can't get laid. Trying to figure out whether that's because most people assume a girl who wants to get laid has plenty of opportunities to do so (not always true, hint to smart DC-based men), or because we're still living under a cultural legacy that says "nice girls don't."

But if we want to carry the analysis over to the other side, maybe using a slightly more selective phrase than, "get laid" (because really, just about anybody can get laid if he wants to, it's just a matter of whether or not he gets to have sex with the people he wants to have sex with and how picky he is), then I think there's a reason to believe "nice" girls don't do as well with the guys, either.

Maybe we'd all be happier if the nice girls and the nice guys would just get together, stop complaining, and just have lots of very nasty sex.

But the real question is, why do people think it's a good thing to be "nice" anyway? "Nice" isn't the same as "moral" or "kind" as Matt suggests above. Those are substantive traits that are going to influence how you perceive a person. "Nice" is not a substantive trait. It's simply an absence of offensive traits, or, at best, an ability to behave one's self properly in public, and a willingness to defer to the wishes of others. At worst, it's a refusal to admit or be willing to let others see one's flaws. These aren't necessarily unattractive features, but there's nothing particularly interesting about them, either, in men or women.

Posted by: flippantangel | Jul 12, 2005 4:12:14 PM

I think your description of the situation also does something to explain true subject of nice guys ire, the ugly jerk who gets laid. If it was just hot jerks the nice guys would be unhappy and consider the girl superficial. When its ugly jerks then the nice guy believes its his niceness that's the flaw, and they go home and cry.

Posted by: Zach | Jul 12, 2005 4:43:39 PM

And of course as Kant would tell you (I think) if you're acting nice because you think it will make people want to have sex with you you're not really being nice according to any conventional way of thinking about it

I believe that was in the collection of his advice columns, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (English title: Are You There, God? It's Me, Kant.)

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Jul 12, 2005 6:26:28 PM

"It seems pretty robustly true that male sexual success is correlated, in part, with one's position in various social and economic hierarchies."

This is correct, but I would only add if that frequent sexual activity is a goal in your life very careful consideration of that hierarchy can yield some very rich tactics.

It's not brain surgery and I don't want to come off as some badass Don Jaun, okay? If you are 25 ask someone 35-40 out and see what happens--you've just manipulated a wrinkle in the hierarchy your way. You'll have to grow up a little but at least you won't need any money.

There's lots of those little byways if you just extend yourself a little and understand the expectations the players hold in the hierarchy.

This was and is an excellent post. I like being a nice person--I suspect a lot of people who only know me from the screens would be surprised at my everyday manner. I often rue being such a son of a bitch in the screens; politics is a nasty, brutish business with very little subtlety, and typing in the screens affords me shields not found in normal human discourse.

Oh well. Being nice is an extremely good way to validate your own soul and place in the world. In you're nice you'll get it. Good post.

Posted by: paradox | Jul 12, 2005 7:55:10 PM

If I can't have Salma Hayek there is no God.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 12, 2005 7:57:48 PM

Majikthise hits the nail on the head when she writes:

"It's comforting to attribute to excessive niceness what might be better explained by shyness, awkwardness, or other less flattering interpretations."

Folks short on social skills often have trouble getting laid. What's the next news flash?

Posted by: Petey | Jul 12, 2005 8:28:51 PM

Kant? Kant may well have died a virgin, so the Kantian approach to sexual behaviour doesn't appeal to me.

Anyway, I think at least some of the mystery is in the part of the conversation that Matt's left out; in the canonical version of the complaint, women claim to want nice guys, but don't behave in ways consistent with that. (And then complain to the "nice guys" about their asshole boyfriends, who they slept with last night and will sleep with again tonight.) In my experience, this is mostly a trait of younger women -- and by "this", I mean "thinking that they want 'nice guys' in the first place". Older women are at least far more likely to know what they want, if they pay attention to the choices they actually make over time.

Posted by: DonBoy | Jul 12, 2005 9:03:12 PM

I also think that Majikthise hits the nail on the head when she complains that actual nice guys don't usually complain to you that women don't appreciate how nice they are. I do have one really nice male friend who is currently single; he has never once used that line on me, or made this particular complaint about women.

This is a pet peeve of mine, as I have often been on the receiving end of such a complaint. (I don't know why, since as a lesbian, I can hardly speak for my sex in heterosexual courtship.) Usually the men who complain to me about this are ridiculously hypocritical. Complaining that a 5'8'', 125 lb red-haired goddess 7 years younger than they isn't interested in them because 'women are so superficial. They all say they want nice guys but it's not true' is pretty laughable when you think about it, but it's happened to me more than once. What can you say? "Lose 50 lbs and get rid of your Nintendo if you want that woman to talk to you?" "Get more realistic about your expectations?" No, you say, "You're a nice guy, you'll find someone someday".

Posted by: Matilde | Jul 12, 2005 9:08:48 PM

Having trouble getting a date, Matthew? That seems to be the subtext.

Posted by: Mr Damage | Jul 12, 2005 10:38:16 PM

Damage: Not really, I do okay. Not that nice, though.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jul 12, 2005 11:10:04 PM

flippantangel: hint to smart DC-based men

How you doin'? I'm only moderately nice baby.

Posted by: nero | Jul 13, 2005 12:46:10 AM

"But the true oddity of this whole discourse is the notion that sex and/or companionship is some kind of prize that the world owes to you in exchange for behaving well."

this is one of the best posts you've plunked out in quite a long time.

Posted by: oh | Jul 13, 2005 1:16:50 AM

The way I see it, if "nice" is the best thing you can come up with to describe yourself, then you are lame. I don't think anyone is confused why people who are lame can't get dates/hot sex.

Posted by: whonose | Jul 13, 2005 1:47:58 AM

Kind of a side point, but you have some factual information wrong in your post. The suicide bombers dont get 72 virgins when they die. Instead, they get one 72 old virgin. It's in the Koran.

I'm pretty sure...

Posted by: kevin | Jul 13, 2005 2:19:12 AM

Gentlemen the secret to picking to a lot of sex is casting a wide net; talking to as many different girls as possible. Being frank in what you want; tell them you want to hook-up don't just talk to them about the weather. Be polite with them but don't be too nice or they may want to keep you around for a while and thus put a carrot in front of you (future sex).

All this sex has a lot of trade-offs. By acting in this manner a "nice" guy probably cannot be considered "nice anymore. A lot of time is wasted keep track of all these girls and being on constant look-out for new girls along with putting the effort into actually talking to them. Men who are unable to talk to women very well, they lack the requited playa skillz, will be unable to pick up a lot of women. Casting a wide net is going to lead to getting shot down a lot, if your self esteem can't take being told to fuck-off 90% of the time then this won't work.

Posted by: MyNameIsAsh | Jul 13, 2005 1:00:03 PM

nero: How you doin'? I'm only moderately nice baby.

Well, I'm only moderately hot and not remotely nice....

Posted by: flippantangel | Jul 13, 2005 2:18:29 PM

"treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen"

Sadly, it's all too true.

Posted by: been there | Jul 13, 2005 5:14:42 PM

Older women are at least far more likely to know what they want, if they pay attention to the choices they actually make over time.

Quite true... I prefer fundamentally decent & honest men, for reasons that should be obvious, but niceness isn't a terribly high priority, mainly because I'm not that nice myself. Niceness as a general characteristic-- I think everyone, regardless of sex, wants their partner to be nice to them at least-- doesn't really mean that much except in its glaring absence. This debate usually reminds me of Nora Ephron's observation that the only feelings to which the "sensitive man" is truly sensitive are his own.

Posted by: latts | Jul 13, 2005 6:42:06 PM

I think a lot of the confusion surrounding this issue stems from the fact that a lot of women think what men find attractive is stupid and vice versa.

I probably should have more to say on the subject, but I don't. Hmmm...

Posted by: Curtis Erhart | Jul 14, 2005 6:26:20 AM

I've been saying pretty much the same thing to my female friends for years. A guy who puts his "niceness" on display in an attempt to enhance his sexual attractiveness is definitely being manipulative.

Another red flag is the line "I'm not like most guys.." If a guy says that, the female on the receiving end should run like hell.

I'm not a "nice" guy, but I'm nice to my SO.

Posted by: Jon Parker | Jul 14, 2005 8:21:43 AM

I went out with a Jewish guy once (I'm also a jew) who's personal ad was "Nice Guy" and he gave off that Rob-C-from-Survivor vibe (not Boston Rob, the one who thinks he's funny).

Long story short...right after he slept with me he ran. Months later I overheard a conversation he was having when we were both at a favorite resturant and he was "ranking" the attractiveness of his many female dates and I just can't convey the quality of the dickiness of his attitude about it. He's the kind of guy who thinks he's super smart and sweet and then doesn't understand why the super-hot chicks don't like him.

He Rob C on Survivor made a pretty revealing comment that "all my stories are about fat chicks" because he thought it made him sound disarmingly funny.

There was a line on Six Feet Under a feet weeks back where Maggie asks Nate "do you think life is something were you put in virture and you get back happiness? you'll be pretty disappointed."

Matt's point is basically that and its a good one. When is sex some kind of a reward for "niceness?" Then again...jackasses like my date doesn't deserve whatever sex they get.

Posted by: catrina | Jul 14, 2005 11:52:31 AM

Women like men who DO rather than THINK. I learned that by getting a Masters in Psych and, well, not getting many women...

Posted by: Mark | Jul 14, 2005 5:15:35 PM

Suicide bombers who fail and die in prison get 72 facsimiles of Lynn Stewart.

Posted by: Mr Damage | Jul 14, 2005 5:17:11 PM

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