On Being Popular and Well-Liked

The subject that makes me most nervous as a writer



There is no subject I feel more nervous writing about than my being popular and well-liked. Over the years I have contemplated doing an essay on this taboo subject, but have always drawn back in cowardice. I’d like to be able to explore, as Montaigne did, all the facets of my character and experience: but the royal road for the personal essay is self-disparagement. Nothing wrong per se in writing about oneself, as the 19th-century Scottish poet and essayist Alexander Smith noted:

If he be without taint of boastfulness, of self-sufficiency, of hungry vanity, the world will not press the charge home. If a man discourses continually of his wines, his plate, his titled acquaintances, the number and quality of his horses, his men-servants and maid-servants, he must discourse very skillfully indeed if he escapes being called a coxcomb.

Never fear, I am not going to talk about my titled acquaintances, horses, or servants, having none, but I do have a lot of friends.

How did that come to be? I would like to analyze the situation dispassionately; to do so I must be brave, must conquer my queasiness. Superstition warns that if I write about this, I will jinx the situation and find myself alone. There is always the possibility that I am deluded, and much less popular than I think I am. But no, I must face up to the fact that I am regularly petitioned by friends, acquaintances, ex-students, colleagues, even strangers, to take up my time by seeing them. Some of them want advice; others, just to bask in the glow of my vitality. (You see how impossible this is threatening to be?) So let us approach the problem clinically, analytically, with bullet-points no less:

  • Do not stand out too much. When I was in grade school, I took note of several boys who were scapegoated, set upon unfairly by their classmates. These boys were highly intelligent, but there was something geeky or strange or foreign in their manner and voice that drew mocking attention to them. I also wanted to be thought intelligent, but I made it a point to appear normal enough, a “regular guy,” up on the latest fads and popular culture.

  • Be available but not too available. I hate snobs who don’t get back to you. If someone emails me with a request to get together, I always reply immediately, and suggest dates. I also recognize that it is part of the duties of friendship to initiate contacts, not to wait passively for the friend to seek you out. On the other hand, as I must be solicitous of time, a good part of my acquaintance cannot expect to hear from me and must make the first move.

  • Do not be too needy. This is the iron law of attraction, which everyone knows. Still, it bears reiterating. Though Smith advises against asserting one’s “self-sufficiency,” I have found it to be a very useful posture, reassuring to others.

  • Be cheerful, or at least equable. It takes a certain discipline not to inflict one’s sorrows or discontents on other people in the first 10 minutes. I try to remember to smile, to let my eyes light up on greeting them. If there is the least opportunity for humor or wit, I take it. That usually means hearing what has just been said with slight detachment, able to convert it to a joke or pun if need be, or something with a broader perspective, but then returning to a more close-up sympathetic mode. As for equanimity, if the building you are in is not on fire, I see no reason to panic.

  • Listen. Probably the most important element in achieving popularity is a receptivity to others. I genuinely prefer getting away from my inner monologue and hearing what others have to say. They usually prefer to talk about themselves.

  • Like people. When I say I like people, for the most part, I don’t mean that I find them necessarily admirable. I mean that I am moved by their quirks, their rigidities, their neuroses, as well as their noble attempts to circumvent their limitations. Some people I find myself liking immediately, either because of their warmth, physical attractiveness, intelligence, cultivation, or self-awareness, usually some combination. With others, the more solemn types, I see that I am in for a slog, but I regard them with curiosity, as specimens of the human condition. The novelist in me pretends I am Balzac.

  • Become accomplished and powerful. If you are accomplished in your field, and have at least a modicum of power to disperse, those on the lower rungs will seek you out. If you meet their hungry requests with kindness instead of hauteur, you will not only be sought, you will be well-loved. When I was in my 20s, still quite unaccomplished and definitely powerless, I had to rely on wiles and on the above attributes to draw people to me. Nowadays, I can assume that my inbox will be filled with flattering attempts to cultivate me in order to snare a letter of recommendation or blurb later on. I do not fool myself that these overtures are necessarily a proof of being well-liked, but they help to swell the sense that I am visible and needed.

Beyond these tentative propositions, I dare not go. Further inquisitions would take me into the nether regions of vanity, dangerous for any writer, where cheekiness veers into coxcombry.

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Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.


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