3 min read

Seeing people as interesting

It turns out I can view people as interesting, though I am not naturally inclined to let go in this way. Viewing people as interesting is less of an action in itself than a letting-go. It's possible for me to let go, though! I'm practicing.

It's not that I can on-command find someone interesting. That sounds horrible. Instead I notice patterns that makes interesting-ness less available, and other things I can access that make the possibility of interesting-ness more available. Viewing people as interesting involves letting go of these patterns of uninteresting-nes and leaning into the things that make interesting-ness accessible.

A pattern I used to fall into is to view people as being a certain way. Like: Oh, a car buff. Oh, a churchgoer. Oh, a people person. Then, orient on those ways that they are: People like that, I like, but people like that, eh, I sleep. I used to do this more. I find other things often work to the extent I can use them to break out of this habit when I notice I'm doing it.

Another pattern is to focus on something. I still find myself doing this. I am focused on something I am doing and someone talks. I get hung up on a question I want to ask or a topic of interest or a joke I want to tell or a clever thought I want to say. I'm off thinking about this one thing. Meanwhile, I'm not so aware of the person in front of me, or the people around me. When viewing people as interesting I have to let go of that for a little while. I have to let it simmer. I can come back for it later.

The focus, crucially, can be something the person in front of me just said. Maybe that's: "Puppies are for losers." It's important for me to distinguish paying attention to the words from paying attention to the person. Staying with the words after I've parsed them is often a bad idea.

Focusing on something also describes the first pattern. Viewing people as being a certain way is a form of focusing on something. It means fixating on fashion, style, mannerism, speech: Pink hair or a buzzcut, a fancy jacket or a sweatshirt, a Bible quote shirt or a Budweiser one, a southern accent or a stutter. It means believing people when they present themselves as being just like (some other people who dress or speak or write like them). It means assuming I know what someone means because I recognized the words that they said and the grammar that they said them with. To repeat myself: It turns out this is a terrible idea. People are terrible at saying what they mean even when they want and care enough to.

(I might come back to that in another post, but I'm not going to expand on it now. This post is already long.)

So having described patterns that block interesting-ness, what makes interesting-ness more available? Some things I've found:

  1. Ask questions. The less you assume about them the better. The more specific the question and the answer, the better. Prompt them for details and specifics; abstract summaries, which they may give you, are generally boring. Crucially: Remain calm and open to an answer. Don't fixate too much on the words. If they refuse specifics, start out assuming it's a hint that they don't want to talk about them for that topic. That is, start by asking if it's a hint to find another topic – rather assuming that you should settle for or expect vagueness no matter the topic.
  2. Ask details. You know those questions that seem pointless and maybe overly personal, like where are you from, do you have kids, what's your job, et cetera? Those questions give you details and texture. If answered and if the answers are pursued, they lead to specifics, rather than to abstractions. Maybe try asking them? (Admittedly I haven't tried this one much myself.)
  3. Pay attention to specific details and texture. Watch out for ways that this person is not like I might expect, from an abstract description of them. Watch out for the ways that they are unique even within the constraints of what I expect. Watch out for the "texture of their soul."
  4. Ask why. Sometimes it's good to literally ask the other person why! Do ask politely, if you're otherwise inclined. If you can find some enthusiasm for it – that is also good. Again, more detail is better.
  5. Look for the best. Look for reasons that the way they are relating might make sense. This often makes more sense in retrospect than in the moment – thinking is usually a bad idea in the moment.
  6. Don't think about any of this too hard. Put in a bare minimum of thought to not say anything outright barbarous. Don't do much more than that. Don't overthink it.

(Some examples would be great. Alas, I'm not now going to give any. Sorry about that.)

Viewing people as interesting is hard. It's hard to commit to. I'm still practicing. It seems worth it to try on sometimes, when it seems appropriate.