I Don't Care If You Read This
Some people don’t care about fashion. They roll out of bed with their messy hair and throw on a T-shirt or hoodie—whatever’s lying around. They don’t like the “game” of figuring out what’s in style and what isn’t, so they opt out of the game.
Except they can’t. Nobody can. Opting out of the game is another move in the game. Not caring about fashion is a fashion statement. T-shirts and hoodies are still clothes, and they still send a signal: “I’m not trying to impress you. I don’t care what you think.”
But the signal is bullshit. We all care what people think—deeply, desperately. Some of us just act like we don’t care what people think, in order to make people think that we don’t care what they think. We signal we’re not signaling.
I once saw a tweet about how good it feels to not tweet: “Had the urge to tweet something a few hours ago. Resisted the urge. Feels good.” The tweeter was patting himself on the back for not tweeting, oblivious to the fact that he was, in fact, tweeting.
Or consider this article in New York Magazine, in which the author proudly declared she had “abandoned the notion of ambition.” The author was tired of writing pat thinkpieces for likes and retweets, which she wrote in a pat thinkpiece that got lots of likes and retweets.
Politics is full of this chicanery, like the complaint that everything is politicized. “You just had to go and make things political, didn’t you, David?” Unfortunately, complaining that everything is politicized is just a way of politicizing complaints that everything is politicized. Sighing about political “tribalism” is, likewise, a signal of loyalty to the centrist/libertarian tribe that sighs about political tribalism.
We are too naïve about signaling games. We think we can escape them. We think there is an “opt out” button we can press at any time. But that button does not exist. We have no choice but to signal. In a judgy species like ours, every little thing we do gets noticed, including the things we don’t do—or the things we say we don’t do while we do them.
Besides, even if we can manage to avoid sending a signal, we still haven’t escaped. The absence of information is still information. Not having an opinion is like having the wrong opinion. Not taking a side is like betraying both sides. Refusing to speak to someone is crueler than yelling at them. Not wearing clothes is the boldest signal of all.
If you know in your heart that you’re not signaling—that you’re just “being true to yourself” or “telling it like it is”—you’re signaling. Because signaling never feels like signaling. It feels like being true to yourself or telling it like it is. The more you want to deny it, the more you must truly care what people think.
It’s all part of a pattern: we bravely defy social norms so that people will praise us, we poke fun of ourselves for being uncool to prove we’re cool, we rebel against conformity in the same way as everyone else, and most of all: we desperately want people to know that we don’t care what they think. It’s the mother of all social paradoxes.
The only escape is to admit there’s no escape. Give in. Play the game. Send the signals you want to send to the people you want to receive them, and—who knows?—you might just feel a glimmer of happiness.
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