This post examines the virtue of amiability (and closely-related or synonymous virtues like friendliness, geniality, agreeableness, conviviality, affability, niceness, affection, and warmth). It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations.

I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it and to become better at it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.

What are these virtues?

These virtues have to do with being pleasant to be around in casual social settings. If you exhibit these virtues, people feel at ease either initiating interactions with you, engaging with you, or simply being around you. You signal that you have benign and respectful intent, in a way that is legible to those around you (you are not a grouch, abrasive or obnoxious, or socially awkward in a way that is off-putting or hard to negotiate). You harmonize well with your social environment (you are not contentious or a shit-stirrer). You welcome friendly interactions with others (you are not stand-offish, cold, brusque). You tone down or repress any inclinations to ratchet up social tensions (you are not ill-natured, querulous, snappy, abrasive, hostile, disputatious).

If you go overboard, being insincere or over-the-top in the way you try to butter up those around you, you might be accused of being a flatterer or being fawning, obsequious, unctuous, oleaginous. The old-fashioned term “man-pleaser” is sometimes deployed in this context. Someone who is so friendly that you’re sure they’re about to pitch you Amway or Krishna Consciousness puts you on edge rather than at ease with their amiability.

Many of the social virtues can play a role in assisting amiability. Some related virtues include hospitality, graciousness, connection, goodwill, courtesy, kindness, sympathy, gentleness/tenderness, tolerance, tact, civility, cheer, warmheartedness, sympathy, concern, and consideration. Friendliness is distinct from friendship, as the latter involves the skills of properly maintaining a more durable, less-superficial relationship, while the former concerns how you interact with people in general, including strangers and casual acquaintances. That said, affection and warmth are also important ingredients of more intimate friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships.

Affection and touch

When I looked around for resources about “affection” in particular, I mostly found resources about affection in the context of romantic (or sometimes parental) relationships — particularly when it comes to how to deploy physical affection / touch in a graceful and welcome way. But I think that’s just a specific case of a more general virtue. I’ve had times when someone has placed their hand on my arm and looked me in the eye in a gently encouraging way that was very effectively affectionate without being either romantic or parentalish. I can’t put my finger on what qualities exactly made it work where in other contexts it might have been awkward or counterproductive. Touch is difficult: it can be a good way of expressing affection/warmth, but it can also be misinterpreted as a romantic overture or a predatory gambit; sometimes it is also seen as condescending.

When going along to get along is a bad strategy

At first, amiability looks like a sort of common-sense “things I learned in kindergarten” sort of virtue. But it has a common and challenging element attached to it: An example of a situation in which we struggle to find the Golden Mean of this virtue would be one in which we are in a group of casual acquaintances and one of them tells a joke that depends for its humor on the shared assumption of an offensive racial stereotype. Do we laugh in order to be agreeable and just try to move on, or do we signal our disapproval? When does our obligation to be agreeable and tolerant get eclipsed by our obligation to insist on better standards of behavior or our disgrace at being associated with shameful behavior? “Go along to get along” is a real problem, and it comes from being inattentive to the balancing act this virtue requires.

Other ways niceness can go awry

“The true gentleman is friendly but not familiar; the inferior man is familiar but not friendly.” ―Confucius[1] 

Some people prioritize niceness at the expense of other virtues. Niceness can be cloying if it seems forced or insincere (or overwhelming or presumptuous).

If you presume more intimacy than you have earned — by sharing or demanding personal information, or by assuming you have permission to touch someone affectionately for instance — you may be overstepping your bounds in a way that comes across as more threatening than friendly, whatever your intentions.

Charming sociopaths

Geniality can be a thin social virtue. Sociopaths are sometimes very charming, but also very self-serving: buttering you up to see what they can get out of you. (But do sociopaths perhaps get an unfairly bad name: tarred by the brush of the more sadistic among them? After all, when it comes down to it, we love sociopaths.)

The virtue of being disagreeable

“In affability there is no hatred of men, but precisely on that account a great deal too much contempt of men.”―Nietzsche[2]

Is there a virtue to be found in being disagreeable? Maybe there is a case to be made for the virtue of being a cantankerous grouch instead. Different people shine in different contexts and in different ways.

How to improve at amiability

With most virtues, the key to getting better is to practice. You start off more-or-less clumsy, then you put in effort at the margin of your current ability, and over time you become more capable. With social virtues, the early, clumsy stage of this process can be embarrassing. You have to put yourself out in front of other people, deliberately doing things beyond your current skill level.

If you find social embarrassment intolerably uncomfortable or frightening, you will have difficulty with this. You somehow need to be able to say “I’m definitely going to screw up from time to time because I’m pushing myself beyond my current comfort zone, but that’s okay — I’ll just brush that off and move on, because I know that’s what it takes.” Easier said than done, I know. Maybe some preliminary work on the virtue of courage would help.

Different people have different sorts of deficits in amiability, with different roots. Some people want to be agreeable and just don’t have a good idea what kind of vibe they’re putting out (e.g. the awkward). Other people developed disagreeableness as a strategy for keeping people at bay (e.g. the gruff). Other people like drama and find other people more interesting when they’re uncomfortable (e.g. the shit-stirrer). Others are unfriendly because they think they’ve got more important things on their agenda than being pleasant (e.g. the jerk). With such variety (and this is just off the top of my head), there will probably also be a variety of strategies to pursue in the course of becoming more agreeable. It may require a lot of work just to identify what’s causing your deficits in the first place before you start working on them.

The difficulty of getting reliable feedback

With amiability there is an additional challenge: it can be difficult to get good feedback on how well you are doing. Let’s say you find yourself sitting at a bus stop with some random stranger, and you think to yourself — “aha! I have an opportunity to practice my amiability.” You notice they are wearing an unusually interesting sweater, and decide to compliment them on it as an opening conversational gambit.

Imagine that you do this in a fabulously competent, suave, utterly disarming way, and the stranger replies by grunting, looking down at their shoes, and inching away from you on the bench. Maybe they’re having a bad day, or they aren’t very good at friendliness themself, or they’re hard of hearing and are embarrassed to confess they didn’t understand what you said. Any number of things might have happened, but your feedback is: “boy howdy, that sure flopped.”

Or on the other hand, maybe you compliment them on their sweater but do so in an incompetent way that makes you sound like you’re being sarcastic, or are making an inappropriate sexual overture, or something like that. But they overlook that and smile and tell you the story of how they got the sweater and then ask you about your jacket, and you hit it off grandly. Maybe they’re just especially fond of conversation, or they’re charitable about the foibles of the people around them, or maybe they misheard you. You may never know. But your feedback now is: “nailed it!”

It may take a lot of data before reliable patterns show up. If you have friends you trust to be frank with you, you can ask them for feedback on how you’re doing and how you might improve.

Become a brilliant conversationalist by letting them talk

I was lucky enough to have a good friend who was extraordinarily good at this virtue. And the way he described it, it was definitely an acquired skill and not something that just came naturally to him. So that (and my own experience at just becoming more middlingly competent) makes me more confident in saying that this virtue is something that is learnable and can be improved with practice.

Greg, my friend, had an incredible knack for turning a stranger into a friend in minutes. I tried to study and learn from his techniques, but I think I was only perceptive enough to pick up some of the rudimentary stuff.

One thing I noticed was that he was very skillful at quickly turning the conversation to whatever it was that the other person was most interested in talking about. Just about everybody has some thing or things that they’re passionate about. Sometimes they’re a little reluctant to start, though, because they don’t want to get typecast or to come off as a monomaniac. But Greg would somehow manage to steer the conversation until it became about the other person’s favorite thing, and then would be full of questions. Before long, the other person was loquacious, comfortable, and fully convinced that Greg was a man of excellent taste whom he or she was lucky to have met. Meanwhile Greg was learning all about some new niche subject directly from an expert, while also making a new friend.

I later learned this was a favorite tactic of Eleanor Roosevelt, though more as a way of becoming more educated and well-rounded than as a method of social lubrication. She wrote:

“I made a game of trying to make people talk about whatever they were interested in and learning as much as I could about their particular subject. After a while I had acquired a certain technique for picking their brains. It was not only great fun but I began to get an insight into many subjects I could not possibly have learned about in any other way.”[3]

I don’t have anywhere near the knack for this that Greg did, but I’ve tried to learn from his technique. Now I tend to spend most of my casual conversations with people asking them questions about things they have already expressed enthusiasm about. I learn a lot that way, and I think I come across much better in conversation than when I used to spend most of my half of the conversation saying things I thought were interesting or important or impressive.

  1. ^

    Analects of Confucius, ⅩⅢ.ⅹⅹⅲ

  2. ^

    Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil Ⅳ.93 (1886)

  3. ^

    Eleanor Roosevelt You Learn by Living (1960) p. 9

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Become a brilliant conversationalist by letting them talk

What happens when both people try to do this?

Which makes this an asymmetric strategy. It can only work on people who don't use it. I imagine one might get a feeling of smug superiority over the less enlightened person who swallows the bait without noticing — "ha, what fools these dullards be!" — but this is more smarm than amiability.

The most famous source of the advice to get the other person to talk about themselves is "How to Make Friends and Influence People". It was written by a salesman, translating his sales technique into everyday life. A salesman is always in an asymmetric relationship with his prospective customers. He is trying to sell them something. But if you never speak of yourself, what are you selling? It's clear what you're buying with your attention: information about the other person.

Rather like Facebook.

Is this another karma-related topic? Your tags suggest otherwise, but I would like to see some of these dimensions as part of the karma metric, both for myself and for other people. Most of the examples you cite seem to be natural binary dimensions, but not fully orthogonal. Not sure what I should say here, but I'll link to my longest comment on Less wrong on the topic of enhanced karma. As you are approaching the topic, such an approach would help me recognize "amiable" people and understand what makes them amiable. I doubt that becoming more amiable is one of my goals, but at least I could reflect on why not. Or perhaps most importantly I could look for the dimensions that reflect sincere amiability to filter against the fake amiability of the "charming sociopaths" you mentioned.

I hadn't intended this post to be at all karma-related, but now I'm very curious about how you would connect karma and amiability.

It's hard to change or improve something without measuring it. I think you are describing a fairly complicated concept, but it might be possible to break it down into dimensions that are easier to assess. For example, if some of the assessments are related to specific comments or replies [our primary "actions" within LessWrong], then we could see what we are doing that affects various aspects of our "amiability".

This demonstration of "Personality Insights" might help illustrate what I'm talking about. If you want to test it, I recommend clicking on the "Body of Text" tab and pasting in some of your writing. Then click on the "Analyze" button to get a display for some of the primary dimensions. If you then click on the "Sunburst visualization" link at the bottom, you'll see more dimensions and how they are grouped. I think your notion of "amiability" may be within the cluster of "Agreeableness" dimensions.

Another way to think of it is related to the profiles that Facebook and the google have compiled for each of us. My understanding (from oldish reports) is that they are dealing with hundreds of dimensions. I would actually like to see my own profile and the data that created it. I might even disagree with some of the evaluations, but right now those evaluations are being used (and abused) without my knowledge.

I don't have time to read your post seriously today*, so I apologise if I'm a bit redundant, but I just wanted to use this occasion to praise Jane Austen.

Amiability is the main virtue in Jane Austen books - in fact one could say that Austen's novel are mainly about (the difference between) agreeableness and amiability. Fanny Price and Anne Elliot exemplify amiability ;  Wickham, Mary and Henri Crawford exemplify agreeableness without amiability. Other characters like Emma or Elisabeth Bennet must learn to distinguish between agreeableness and amiability.

As I understand it, the main difference is that agreeableness is the ability to make other like you, while amiability is the virtue that makes you worthy of being liked (in this sense amiability holds in Jane Austen works a position quite similar to charity in Christian philosophy).

One consequence of this distinction is that you should try to associate with people who are really amiable rather than just agreeable, as you will learn amiability by imitation and emulation.


*I plan to do it in a few days, I like your posts ;)

Thanks! I remember that Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue made the surprising claim that Jane Austen was the last thinker of note in the Western virtue-oriented tradition of ethics as it was dying out (before its more recent revival). I should go back and reread some of her books with that in mind.

My reading of this comes mainly from MacIntyre to be honest (and a bit of Allan Bloom too).