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How to Have Good Relationships

It's probably a mistake to have too many rules about how to relate.

Some thoughts about how to Have Good Relationships:

As soon as we start to legislate for how to have relationships, we are already in danger of getting it wrong. This is because if we attempt to manipulate a relationship, there is a danger of treating the other as an ‘it’ rather than as an equal; of seeing him or her as an object to be steered rather than another subject to meet. Nor can we have a simple rule: ‘be empathetic’ – since empathy is part of a process, not a rigid set of behaviours.

My friend Astrid had a rule she applied to relationships. When she was working out how she felt about someone she would say, for instance, ‘… And he asked me no questions about myself at all’ – as if she was seeking to prove something. I guessed that she meant that she experienced that person as self-absorbed but I wanted to challenge that view and I asked her to explain more of what she meant. She explained that it is polite to ask questions when you meet a new person. If the other person does not return the compliment by showing curiosity in return then the suspicion is that they are self-absorbed and selfish. I thought that, as well as sounding like a post-rationalisation for Astrid’s not taking to a particular person, this way of looking at the world did not take into account the ‘negative politeness’ rule which is an unspoken part of the rituals of my culture.

Gross generalisation coming up. Basically there are two sorts of cultures. In crowded countries such as Japan and Britain we tend to have ‘negative-politeness’. This means that people are aware of others’ need for privacy, and their desire not to be intruded upon. In countries where there is more space, like the USA, people are more inclined to practise ‘positive politeness’, where the emphasis is on inclusion and openness. The anthropologist, Kate Fox says in her excellent book, Watching The English, that what looks like stand-offishness in a negative-politeness culture is really a sort of consideration for people’s privacy. So you see, for every overarching rule about how to have relationships, there will always be another that contradicts it. You may act in a caring way towards somebody, but if you have not absorbed the rules of that person’s family of origin or culture you can still get it wrong. Our codes about manners differ from family to family and culture to culture. Manners are a societal attempt to regulate the way we treat one another. If we follow manners strictly, we may turn into a ‘super-charmer’, and other people may doubt our sincerity. If we become extra sincere, we may appear over-earnest in a way that might be acceptable in, say, America but not in Britain. It is difficult to formulate guidelines about other peoples’ feelings because they vary so much, from culture to culture, from family to family, from person to person, and from moment to moment. We are either good at picking up on peoples’ feelings and attuning to them, or we are not. The way to learn how to be with someone is by being with them; if we cannot get that far we are a bit stuck. In trying to please one group of people we can end up offending another.

Asking people what we are doing wrong will either upset us (when we get the answer), or will only tell us what we are doing wrong in their eyes – and it might not be us who is ‘wrong’ anyway. Adhering to strict guidelines about how to behave around others is a form of rigidity. Not being mindful of your impact upon others is a form of chaos. What we are seeking is a middle way, which can be defined as ‘flexibility’; this allows us to reach out and respond to others with attunement. This flexibility is something we can aim for but we should not expect to achieve it in every encounter. However, if we find forming any relationship at all difficult, we may need to invest in consulting a relationship expert, a psychotherapist or another kind of mental-health worker, or you might find my book useful, How to Stay Sane, published by Picador, available in all good bookshops and here:


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