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The Whippet #72: How much does your skeleton weigh?

McKinley Valentine — 7 min read

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Good morning!

Narcissism and flattery

I keep thinking about something in Leah Ginnivan's most recent newsletter - she says "I think most people, certainly myself and most people I hang out with, have a streak of narcissism" - meaning not the full-blown version but "the idea that we must be a Certain Way, and need to be perceived as a Certain Way". She goes into a lot of detail but the bit I want to talk about is the tendency to "evaluate and treat others according their ability to uphold our own self image".

That's what flattery is - upholding someone else's image of themselves. But this "our own self image" part is important. It's not just saying "you're so handsome, you're so strong, I bet you're really good at sports". It's much more subtle. It often doesn't even look compliment-shaped.

It's often in the shape of friendly running jokes about a person's traits, like being scatter-brained or getting wasted every weekend or always being the first one into work every morning. Teasing: "How many times have you seen Mad Max now? 50? 100?" This is why parody often doesn't work by the way - people like themselves so I might watch a parody of a type of person I don't like and think "oh my god what a devastatingly cutting portrayal" but the recipient just goes "haha that's so me" and they feel good because it backs up their self-image. (Hipsters love Portlandia, conservatives loved the Colbert Report, Area Men love The Onion).

If you ask someone's opinion on a sports thing, and they're a sporty person, you're backing up their self-image ("you seem like you'd be informed about sports"). If you ask the kind of nerd who calls sports "sportsball", this is not going to flatter them, it's going to alienate them.

Weirdly specific example: there's a thing you often see in geek social circles where everyone agrees one girl/woman has a powerful deathstare? And friends will back this up by telling new people to watch out for it, don't piss her off, beware the Deathstare. Like, joking but also sincere. And there's not really any such thing as an extra-powerful deathstare, it's just an angry face, so this is a collective social backing up of each other's self-image.

So the next thought was that nothing draws contempt like misfired flattery. When someone is trying to flatter you, they aren't just delivering a compliment, they are making an assessment about what you think of yourself, and then trying to uphold that image. So it has the potential to go incredibly wrong. "Really, that's what you think I'd like to think of myself?" If they get it wrong, you think "you don't get me at all" and it's a huge turn-off. (Note: not all compliments are flattery - some spring purely from your own perspective. If I think your earrings are cool and I say your earrings are cool, chances are that's all that's going on. Flattery is motivated more by getting that person to like you than by self-expression. It can also be unconscious - you're not deliberately manipulating someone but you do want them to like you and that affects how you act around them.)

When I had long hair, I used to sometimes get compliments about how 'traditional and feminine' I looked. This was not the way to my heart. I'm sure you can think of flattery that misfired because they complimented you on something that you have no interest in being. If you think of someone who's boorish and unpleasant, this might be one of the social skills they often get wrong.

Leah's newsletter is great if you like thoughtful analytical commentary from a very smart woman working in medicine and so seeing a huge variety of people at a very intense time for them, that is one way to get emotional awareness fast. Comes out only a few times a year so won't jam up your inbox. Subscribe here

How much does your skeleton weigh?

Make a guess. Answer will be further down, but guess first.

Meatloaf stated very clearly what he wouldn't do for love but no one will listen

It's a different thing in every verse, e.g.

"I'll never forget the way you feel right now
I would do anything for love, but I won't do that"

and then even less subtly:

Woman: "Sooner or later you'll be screwing around"
Meatloaf: "I won't do that"

People keep insisting it's a mystery but it has at least led to the delightful Wikipedia subheading Perceived ambiguity of 'that'

Grebes courtship ceremony

Grebes (the bird above) have the most elaborate courtship ceremonies of any waterbird. They're serial monogamists so they stay together to raise their kids but not usually longer.

First the Rushing Ceremony (pictured above), where either a male bird runs on water, and an interested female bird joins him, or two male birds rush together to try and get female attention. They are too heavy to be supported by surface tension so this is legit impressive, I would be impressed.

Then once the female grebe has chosen a grebe who's good at rushing (I guess), they do the Weed Ceremony. "The pair bob their heads in water. Then they dive in place and come back up to surface while holding weed on their beaks. This ceremony is continued until one of the pair flips away its weeds."

Next the Greeting Ceremony, which involves "dip-shaking, bob-shaking, bob-preening and arch-clucking". Then after they've built a nest together and mated, they take turns incubating the egg and getting food for each other. Top-notch ambassadors for waterbird-kind. Wikipedia.

Projecting human ideas onto wild animals

From a great piece on celebrities who keep tigers and other wild animals as pets - but they're not really pets. They're not domesticated. They're not safe.

"It also makes me think of something a friend of mine said when she was exasperated with how her neighbors were sentimentalizing a black bear that was then regularly appearing in their yards: “You are making up a story about the bear and adding to that story each time you see it, but the bear is not making up a story about you.”

And is that one way to understand wildness, as a lack of allegiance to the conventions of narrative?"

I really like that framing.

For the rest of this piece, .

Your skeleton weighs HARDLY ANYTHING

Maybe 10 kg / 22 lb? That's wet and alive and in your body. It's about 15% of your total bodyweight so that figure was for a 70 kg / 154 lb person with average bone density. Dry and marrowless, it's much less. My dry skeleton is slightly under 2 kg / 5 lbs. (I had a bone density scan, it was very exciting, I got to see my whole skeleton in an x-ray).

I would have guessed maybe 40% so I was extremely wrong, I hope you were too.

Fun second quiz is, where do you think your lungs are? Put a finger where you think the top and bottom is on yourself, then look here: lungs in comparison to ribcage.

I also got this very wrong. Note esp. the collarbones and the lower ribs compared to lung position.

"I'd trust them with my life"

is the worst way to indicate that you trust someone a lot!

If you were holding on to a cliff edge by one hand, pretty much anyone who saw would try to stop you from falling if they could. Even someone who hates you would try, however grudgingly. "With your life" is about the bare minimum level of trust.

I mean, someone stole my bike a few months ago, but I don't think that person would have murdered me. So I'd trust them with my life but not my bike.

So I probably wouldn't trust a complete stranger to mind my bike, but I'd trust a work colleague or casual acquaintance with it, so that's still a pretty low level of trust.

I'd trust heaps of people to look after a pet while I was on holiday, but a lot fewer people to remember to water my houseplants. Generally, the less valuable something is, the less you can trust someone with it.

Maybe, "I'd trust them with an extremely interesting piece of gossip". That's really narrowing the list of trustworthy people.

Or, ooh, "I'd trust them with my favourite book, which is out of print and impossible to replace" - there are MANY dear friends I wouldn't trust that much.

But imagine having a friend who you were like, "oh obviously they wouldn't call an ambulance if I was having a heart attack, we're not BEST friends". Absurd! You can trust most people with your life.

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.

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