Tips for affirmation

Seeking affirmation isn’t new and it isn’t rare. We probably do hundreds of things a day that are in someway dictated by us thinking someone else will be impressed by it. Even if just through some game-theoretic dance of logic in our heads; “If I do this, then he’ll think that. And if he thinks that then...” Why instagram that over-saturated holiday photo? Why spend 4 times as much on some shoes that are 10 times less comfortable? The answer is probably affirmation. You want to feel like someone else recognises your skills, success, or immaculate taste in footwear. What I find fascinating, though, is how otherwise confident people get crumbled into affirmation-seeking idiots by restaurant staff whose only skills on display are belittlement and arrogance.

Be honest with yourself, how many times have you ordered a slightly more expensive bottle of wine, or left a slightly bigger tip just because you want the serving staff to think you’re affluent and sophisticated? It distorts the restaurant market to the inverse of what you’d expect. Go to a fancy place and the more look-down-their-nose and belittling the waiter is, the harder you’ll try to impress him.

The waiter comes over. Somehow he acknowledges your presence while simultaneously dismissing you of being worthy of his attention. Your brain churns:
“Don’t order the house wine, he’ll think we’re cheapskate.”
“No, not the Riesling, it’s a trap. Or is it a double bluff? Isn’t Riesling supposed to be good these days?”
“The pasta looks nice, but it’s also the cheapest thing on the menu. Can’t order that.”
You fumble. You try your hardest to order the Chorey-Les-Beaune in your best French pronounciation. The waiter is amused by your infantile attempt, and looks at the menu to see which one you’re pointing at. “Ah yes, the Chorey-Les-Beaune” he says, correcting you with a pronunciation that’s equally as wrong, but just delivered with more confidence. He even congratulates you on your choice, in the same way a parent says “Well you tried your hardest.” to their child that just came second from last in the sports day 200 metres; there’s no room for doubt, he’s not being sincere. You know you’ve failed in the sophistication category, he’s not impressed. Maybe you can redeem it in the affluence category; order dessert and coffee and leave an excessive tip and surely he’ll be impressed by your care-free big spending?

Few things tickle the affirmation-seeking tender spot more than being a regular. Walking into a bar and being greeted with recognition and a smile, hugs the ego like nothing else when you know for a fact that every other customer in there was greeted with rude aloofness. The fact that the staff only stopped giving you the cold shoulder after your 50th visit and 1500th pound spent in there is beside the point. Somewhere in the barman’s mind is an airline-style loyalty program. Every drink bought and tip given earns you a couple of tier points. Earn enough and for a while you’ll get treated like a human being. Earn even more and you hit the jackpot: lifetime status (that is until the barman leaves to work somewhere else and you’re back at square one). This yield-optimising ego tickling comes down to being made to feel special and above everyone else. If the barman were just a nice guy who smiled at everyone, it’d devalue the currency. You wouldn’t be motivated to impress him or spend so much that you got special treatment.

Private members’ clubs are the next level of this. The more exclusive they make it and the more they don’t want you as a member, the more you want to be a member. Half the lawyers I know are desperate to join Soho House (a club that only accepts those working in the creative industries). One of them even went to the effort of making a fake website that portrayed a successful musician alter ego in an effort to get in (he doesn’t even play an instrument). But weirdly, or perhaps obviously, none of the people I know who actually work in creative industries care about joining.

Those with the peace of mind and confidence to know they have nothing to prove, can hold their ground. My friends who actually know about wine seem pretty happy ordering the house wine if it’s actually good, confident that they can out-bullshit even the snobbiest of waiters. Similarly, the people I know who are lucky enough to be rich leave the stingiest of tips (or maybe that’s just part of how they stay rich). Affirmation is just the ego-dilating fix of fakers, the chasm filler of cognitive dissonance. And for the snobby waiters... it’s the means to the excessive tip received with the I’m-still-not-impressed smile.

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