Advice Goddess

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advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

Q: I recently had my addiction recovery memoir published. I’m very honest and vulnerable in it, and readers feel super-connected to me because of it. Most just briefly thank me for how it changed their life, etc. However, a few have really latched on to me via social media. I respond to their first message, and then they write back with pretty much a whole novel and message me constantly. I don’t want to be mean, but this is time-consuming and draining.—Unprepared

A: Not to worry … that fan won’t be stalking you forever—that is, if you’ll just sign the medical release she’s had drawn up for the two of you to get surgically conjoined.  

In writing your book, you probably wanted to help others get the monkey off their back—not point them to the open space on yours so they could line up to take its place. The interaction these fans have with you is a “parasocial” relationship, a psych term describing a strong one-sided emotional bond a person develops with a fictional character, celebrity or media figure.

These people aren’t crazy; they know, for example, that Jimmy Kimmel isn’t their actual “bro.” But we’re driven by psychological adaptations that are sometimes poorly matched with our modern world, as they evolved to solve mating and survival problems in an ancestral (hunter-gatherer) environment.

Though it still pays for us to try to get close to high-status people—so that we might learn the ropes, get status by association and get some trickle-down benefits—the adaptation pushing us to do this evolved when we gathered around fires, not flat-screens. This makes our poor little Stone Age minds ill-equipped to differentiate between people we know and people we know from books, movies and TV.

Psychologist David C. Giles and others who study parasocial relationships were used to these interactions remaining one-sided, as until recently, it was challenging to even find a celeb’s agent’s mailing address to send them a letter. However, as you’ve experienced, that’s changed thanks to social media, which is to say, Beyonce’s on Twitter. But the fact that you can be reached doesn’t mean that you owe anyone your time. As soon as you see someone trying to hop the fence from fan to friend, write something brief but kind, such as: “It means a lot to me that you connected with my book. However, I’m swamped with writing deadlines, so I can’t carry on an email exchange, much as I’d like to. Hope you understand!”

This message establishes a boundary, but without violating your fan’s dignity. Dignity, explains international conflict resolution specialist Donna Hicks, is an “internal state of peace” a person feels when they’re treated as if they have value and their feelings matter. Preserving a person’s dignity can actually make the difference between their hating you and their accepting your need to have a life—beyond waiting around to respond to their next 8,000-word email.

Q: I’m a single woman in my mid-30s, and I can’t cook. I’m also not interested in learning. My parents are old-school, and this worries them. They keep telling me that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Is that really still true?—Takeout Queen

A: A man does not stay with a mean woman simply because she makes a mean pot roast: “Yeah, bro, I was all ready to leave her, but then my stomach chained itself to the kitchen table.”

However, what really matters for a lot of men is that you’re loving as you pry the plastic lid off their dinner. Being loving is not just a state of mind; it is something you do—a habit of being responsive to what marriage researcher John Gottman calls “bids” from your partner for your attention, affection or support. Being responsive involves listening to and engaging with your partner, even in the mundane little moments of life.

Sure, some men will find it a deal breaker that you don’t cook—same as some will find it a deal breaker if you aren’t up for raising children or llamas. But even a cursory familiarity with male anatomy suggests that there are a number of ways to a man’s heart, from the obvious—a surgical saw through the sternum—to a more indirect but far more popular route: Showing him that you can tie a cherry stem into a knot with your tongue.

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