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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Social Napoleonics

If you want to learn how to conquer the social world, the best way to do so is to learn from the shrewd and disciplined fellows who conquered the real world. Taking power socially shares much in common with taking power militarily, with only the physical modality marking the difference. The hallmark virtues of power politics are decisiveness, speed in executing decisions, and a broad contempt for useless superfluity. The military metaphor is the very embodiment of these virtues, since if you paused in the middle of a battlefield to rephrase the action in iambic pentameter, concern yourself with the price of bread, or sit down to wait for the shade, you’ll not only end up being proven wrong, you’ll also end up very dead. In war you’re always, pardon the expression, ‘under the gun’. . You must learn to think sparely, effectively, and fast. Only in this anti-social discipline is nonsense so brutally and swiftly pared away. The resulting lessons to be learned are as uncompromising as they are bluntly clear. Think simply, think practically, think fast, and keep your eye always on the changing physical and social environment, for inspiration wells up from all the tiny yet obvious details of a situation, and they will all form a clear picture of the answers you seek if you only stand back and look.

Napoleon did not find success through his application of an inspired creativity to age old problems, but in his elevation of practicality to the level of high art. Napoleon did nothing that was novel or uncommon, he simply performed the commonplace uncommonly well, and for his troubles, he conquered nearly the whole of Europe. The art of practicality requires an acute awareness of how even little actions may be used as levers to move the world. Oftentimes, we dismiss performing simple actions that cumulatively have very significant effects. For our social lives in particular, the very swiftness that other people appraise us makes success a hostage to getting our behavior right, the first time. To be successful with the opposite sex, we must be able to do simple things correctly, and we must continually strive to be sensitive as to wheat those simple things are. Experience is probably the best teacher of what we can politely call the social graces, or when potentially dating is involved, the art of flirting. Yet it is always necessary to reaffirm those social tactics whose mastery will ultimately spell the difference between victory or defeat in the mating game. It’s all quite Napoleonic, really.

Choose your social terrain well

Napoleon was very picky about where he’d fight a battle. Not just any terrain would do. Scenic and gentle hills were important, since they could provide a wonderfully pastoral setting for viewing the ensuing martial proceeds, not to mention a good location for cannon. The countryside below had to be uncluttered and expansive enough so that le Grand Armee would have time to deploy and maneuver with its accustomed speed. If the battle was going well, the opponent should have to beat his retreat over an obstacle like a river, city, or mountain range, thus permitting easy encirclement and capture. On the other hand, if the battle was doing poorly, it was nice to have a good network of roads to your rear just in case you had to make a run for it.

In most social situations, we choose our terrain very well at all, and thus we can’t deploy our personalities to their best effect. Most of the time this is not our fault, since we may be maneuvered or forced by lonely necessity into being at places we would normally run from. In spite of our best efforts, we may simply not have the social skills to maneuver well in many social settings, or we may have mastered those skills too well to abandon them with ease in a situation which calls for something less than pristine manner, such as a singles bar.

Invariably, we are forced to make the most of bad, or at best mediocre social situations. However, we should never pay for these experiences at the cost of nerves or morale. Exploring new socializing opportunities, even if they are singles bars or singles parties, should not be passed up if better alternatives are wanting; but it is equally crucial that we not pass up a chance to beat a safe retreat from a situation that threatens to overwhelm our emotional defenses. Our social skills increase with our social experience, and can just as easily be destroyed through social trauma. To be successful in any social milieu require the initial courage to enter them, the often greater courage to leave them, and as we shall note, the ingenuity to remake them.

Napoleon knew that the effectiveness of his army would be diminished if the setting for a battle did not meet his prerequisites, therefore he took pains to take note of every contour of the surrounding countryside, always aware that a gentle slope or ridge slope or ridge could spell the difference between victory or defeat. Napoleon invited combat by appearing on a stage of his own choosing, and for the most part, his enemies would oblige him his choice, and thus advance him the first step towards victory.

We rarely set the stage for our own social exploits, although this is far easier than one might think. Napoleon developed this skill through a keen and through appreciation of how geography shaped movement, and how psychology moved men. It is no different in our social lives, as it can be reasonably argues that Napoleon won many battles because his army was simply more impressive than his opponent’s. The first shock of the meeting of two armies in the field was the first impression that in minutes could break down even the most stalwart resolve of an enemy soldier. In a battle, Napoleon always put his army’s best face forward, and that face was marked by unstoppable and ferocious resolve, elegance of motion, and intelligent design. Napoleon could ascertain the moves of his opponent with the foresight of a chess master, and as soon as a weakness was revealed, he would hurl his army at that weak point, and shatter his enemy’s line through he application of irresistible force. Napoleon put little stock in contests decided through attrition; the game was to be won in one bold stroke, or it was not worth to be won at all. His battles were not wanting in carnage, yet the incisiveness and swiftness of his generalship proved an intoxicant to his soldiers, who in the delirious rush of a charge forgot that the cost of death was after all too high a price to pay for glory. A battle would be won or lost in the course of an afternoon, hence to hold back any resource was to place the outcome at risk.

In social settings, a similar premium is placed on putting your own best face forward. People don’t deliberate at length before they pass judgement on you, they judge you immediately, and they will only pause to get to know you when you give them pause through the initial brilliance of your appearance, interests, and personality. When you eye someone you would like to meet, it is crucial that you communicate with speed and finesse all those attributes which summarize your personality, accomplishments, and interests; and it is important that you also tailor your reported attributes to match the preferences and interests of the other person. Just as when in dating one is theoretically on his or her best behavior, the initial socializing before a date is set places an even higher premium on making an excellent impression. Yet because time is short, your must make your greatest personal impact now to finally shatter any personal ambivalence that that person may have towards continuing to socialize with and ultimately dating you.
Even if your shining attentions don’t pay off, they will indirectly pay off by your firm knowledge that if your best attributes don’t impress, any further pursuit will be at best a poorly rewarded exercised that will not warrant the investment of your time and effort. Often, this knowledge is the most valuable of all.

Baubles, Bangles, and Beads

To Napoleon, life was a game, a war game, and as with all good sporting affairs, what better motivator can there be to prompt one to endure ever threatening pain and suffering than a piece of tine with you name on it? By offering a little tin badge to the competitive soldiers who risked and endured more suffering than their peers, Napoleon found that his men soon thirsted ever more for ‘La Gloire’. Napoleon was no fool, and soon he dreamt up a whole wardrobe of costume jewelry to appease the martial vanity of his troops. Medals, banners, and citations were strewn among his soldiers like plastic baubles to restless children. Napoleon turned a handsome rate of exchange for these trinkets, as his soldiers paid for their tin honors in human courage, and tragically, human lives.

Motivation is often sparked in our own lives by a simple turn of a phrase, a complement or gesture that marks approval or admiration. For our social lives in particular, we long to be affirmed by the attention and compliments of others; and when the social setting is a party, to be ignored is almost to be insulted. People are always receptive to sincere and measured compliments, and at a party, the complement is an easy and painless way of marking your interest in other people, and motivating their interest in you.

As Napoleon realized, one’s individual goals are best achieved not through the motivation on one or two select people, but of groups of people. A well placed complement is easy and cheap, and can influence those people who in turn will guard and enhance your reputation. Oftentimes, the best way to stir the interest of the opposite sex is to have your reputation precede you. Compliments have a way of reflecting back on the personality of the giver, and a personal reputation for kindness and consideration can level another’s personal defenses with a sureness that no amount of personal wit or savoir faire can equal. At any social function, it is important that one should at least briefly bestow her attentions among as many of the guests as possible, and to establish indelibly the mark of her personality. This will allow others to take note of you, to position themselves to meet you, and to do so with enthusiasm. It is ironic that one of the best stratagems for meeting one or two special people is to be able to meet all people with graciousness and kindness.

Know your limitations.

Being an all conquering hero can be detrimental to a career as timidity. Napoleon had the world in his grasp, yet his ambition was unquenchable, and so it was almost inevitable that he would end his career alone, helpless, and stranded on a barren rock in the Atlantic.

A curious tendency of great conquerors is that their appetite for success doubles after each victory. The act of stringing victory after victory becomes in itself a spur to ever growing ambition. There is no time to savor what you have won, since to pause is to place at risk ever greater potential victories. If time and chance favored it, Napoleon would have marched on to the ends of the world, only to be swallowed up by an expanse of geography. Of course, a Russian winter helped put an end to Napoleon’s string of successes, and indeed, caused them all to unravel.

The fatal flaw in many of those who are great social lions is that they forget what the initial purpose of that socializing was to begin with. Particularly for those individuals who set out to secure a committed relationship with the opposite sex, the constant lure of ever greater conquests dulls their appreciation for what they have, hence for all their success, they end up with nothing. An unexpected side effect of an affluent world is that we have the leisure and independence to pursue ever lofty and remote goals, and lose sight of the fact that those goals are fabulous only because one’s imagination makes them so. This is why many people who have everything going for them have nothing much going for them at all, since they have the means to constantly trudge across barren social landscapes in a quixotic quest to find the knight in shining armor or princess who is just beyond the horizon.

To know the inevitable limitations of other people is to know your own, and that is a fact that is perhaps hardest to swallow. Modesty may seem to be a harsh antidote for the Napoleonic fantasies of all of us, but it is a needed one . Knowing where to stop is to know that there is nothing really new under the sun, and that an ideal relationship is not something you possess by wit and guile, but is something you develop through compromises and hard work. In the final analysis, a relationship is not something you conquer, it is something you build.

written by me (1984)

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