“Confidence is ignorance. If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.”
― Eoin Colfer
Consider this thought experiment. You’re at a crowded bar, and you notice two different men approach the bar to order. The first looks around, pauses, and hangs back a moment. The second casually walks up to the bartender, makes eye contact, and recites his request in a clear, loud voice. Which of these men is more confident? The second man is being more assertive, yes. But assertiveness is not the same thing as confidence. Perhaps the first man noticed a queue and had recently read Emerson: “A great man is always willing to be little.” Perhaps he suddenly can’t remember the name of the drink he wanted. On the other hand, maybe the second man is already drunk, or self-entitled, or just watched the TED talk on power stances. In the moment when you are forming a first impression of someone, it is easy to over-interpret these things. We confuse assertiveness and hubris for confidence all the time.
You may think I’m splitting hairs. If one has confidence – belief in one’s self-worth and abilities – won’t it be made evident through assertive and bold behavior? Given enough time, perhaps. But I am focusing on a specific context: the split second in which we formulate first impressions about people and make snap judgments about their qualities. Yes, sometimes getting to know someone better changes our appraisals of a person. And yes, sometimes those changes in appraisal make us find that person more or less attractive. But the point I’m trying to make here is this. If we can’t accurately identify confidence in our first impression of a person, then we can’t claim that it’s confidence we find attractive.
I have a friend named Sonia. Sonia is small in stature with dark hair and olive skin. She has an incredible amount of energy, like a puppy on a road trip. (For you pop culture nerds, she was Manic Pixie before your fellow pop culture nerds realized there was such a thing.) Sonia also teaches violin lessons. She once told me that one of the most difficult things to teach her students was how to be gentle. “In order to be gentle,” she said, “first you have to be strong. If you’re not strong, you’re not being gentle, you’re being weak.” This has been one of the most impactful things anyone has ever said to me, and it certainly applies here. The touch of assertiveness based on a total lack of self-awareness may feel exactly the same as the touch of assertiveness based on confidence. But one has strength behind it while the other one does not. How can you tell the difference?
I have been thinking a lot lately about the masks we wear and the difference between who we are and who we say we are. So to me, this is not a trivial difference. If we find assertiveness attractive because it implies confidence, and we find confidence attractive because it implies competence, then we can waste a lot of time and heartache discovering that our early impression was mistaken. Ultimately, I think we oversimplify these things quite a lot. It can be difficult to identify what exactly it is about someone that attracts us so much. Maybe it is something identifiable like a symmetrical face combined with strong opinions on why Adrian Peterson is the greatest running back of all time. Maybe it was natural touch at the exact right moment. Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” I guess my riff on his wisdom is, “An unexamined dating life is …well, something, I guess. Probably easier than the alternative.”