My campaign to become a beloved National Treasure has hit a small snag, in that most people seem to hate me. I judge this from the letters I get, such as this one, which was written in Magic Marker across the top of a recent column of mine, and which I quote here verbatim: "You are an idot!!"
I am not. A major hallmark of idots is that they aren't smart enough to know when to seek professional help. But when I found out a local high school was going to host an adult-education seminar on "How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less," I signed right up.
The instructor was a cheerful woman named Nancy. Nancy is an expert in feng shui, which appears to be the ancient, mystical Chinese art of rearranging furniture. Nancy immediately assured us that this class would be not at all New Agey, but a pragmatic, hands-on, scientifically based guide to achieving likability by, and I quote, "adjusting your internal bodily energy circuits before you enter into another person's energy field."
So right from the get-go I sensed I was in trouble. It quickly got worse when Nancy asked people to suggest the sorts of attitudes that might help a person bond with others. Someone said "openness and flexibility." Someone else said "enthusiasm and cheerfulness." I suggested "negativity and sarcasm," on the theory that we often find ourselves at the mercy of morons, lunatics and incompetents, and that sometimes people can bond in recognition of, and joyful opposition to, this central, ghastly fact of life. Nancy gave me a look that suggested that her energy fields were about to open a can of whup-ass on my energy fields.
Next came some exercises. In the first one, we were to practice establishing instant rapport with another person, which involved doing things like physically aligning our heart with the other person's heart, shaking hands vigorously and with enormous faked sincerity, and, most important, establishing eye contact. A good way to make sure you establish eye contact, Nancy said, is always to make note of the other person's eye color.
I found myself paired with Heather, the youngest, prettiest woman in the room. I admit I was a little nervous and flustered. I decided I would start right off by not only observing her eye color, but commenting cheerfully and enthusiastically about her eye color, to establish rapport. It didn't go well.
Me: Hi! I'm Gene! I can't help but notice that you have . . . you have . . .
Me: Say, what color are your eyes?
Heather: Actually, they're dichromatic. They're different colors.
Me: They are! One is sort of hazel and one is sort of brown! It's just like those dogs!
Heather: Those . . . dogs?
Me: You know, Siberian huskies? Some huskies have one brown eye and one blue.
Me: (Uh-oh.) Wait, I'm not calling you a dog.
Me: I mean, you look quite . . . fetching.
Me: I don't mean like a dog!
Me: I am going to sit down now.
Next our job was to engage our partner in conversation. Nancy had elaborate rules for how to do this, including the types of questions to ask (nothing that could be answered just yes or no), and the proper way to tilt your head and hold your eyes, and special, secret, encouraging phrases to use as a listener (e.g., "Wow!" "Really?" "I see!").
Heather and I started talking this way, but after tilting and blinking and properly aligning our hearts for a few seconds, we quickly forgot about the rules and just got to chatting, which is when I learned that Heather is a smart, engaging, likable person. She is a social worker, but also an avid outdoorswoman who has volunteered on wilderness rescue teams, finding lost hikers. I asked her if there were any interesting things she had learned from this, and she said that the genders react differently to this crisis in one principal way: Women thank their rescuers, while men who are rescued almost invariably deny they were lost, even if they were, like, licking rainwater from tree stumps and eating slugs.
Now, before I took this course, I might have laughed heartily at this observation. But, curiously, at no time during the five-hour-long lesson had the word "humor" even come up as a tactic for making people like you. So, instead, I said, "Wow! Really? I see!"
That's when we laughed.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com.
Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.