For Objectivists, selfishness is a moral ideal. It is proper for man to act in his own self-interest, and his own happiness ought to be his highest moral purpose. But when it comes to interpersonal relationships, some Objectivists misconstrue the meaning of “selfishness” to mean “self-centeredness.” When meeting new people, or in building relationships, they tend to ignore the values of others. This misinterpretation of the Objectivist ethics implies a failure to recognize the great potential value of other rational beings. One who commits this error can develop and reinforce a social ineptness that cripples his ability to develop relationships.
To illustrate my point, I will take a simple example that everyone can relate to: meeting new people. How does the (rational) selfish man get to know a new person? How about the self-centered man?
[Before one can get to know new people, he must be around them. One will not meet many people by sitting around his apartment all day, every day. Some self-centered men never get to the point of meeting new people because they believe that they ought to be entirely “self-sufficient,” with no need of friendships or romantic love. But I will leave this issue aside for now, and focus on the method that a selfish vs. self-centered man uses to get to know new people.]
The self-centered man (implicitly) believes that his own thoughts, interests, and values ought to be the focus of any effort to develop a new relationship. When he meets a new person, his objective is to tell that person all about himself. “This is what I do for a living, this is what I’m passionate about, these are my interests, etc.” Of course, he will listen to what the new person has to say, but that is not his primary objective. For the self-centered man, the natural course of conversation is: I tell you as much as possible about myself, and you tell me as much as possible about yourself. The self-centered man evaluates new people, not on the basis of their values, but on how they respond to his values. For him, that is what getting to know people means.
As anyone who has met this kind of person will attest, the self-centered approach can come across as aloof, snobby, rude, or disinterested. One gets the impression: “This person is not at all interested in getting to know me, only in telling me about himself.” The self-centered man does not treat new people as potential values. Potential values are to be probed, investigated, and evaluated. How can one evaluate a new person if he makes no effort to discover that which he is evaluating? Though he may not intend it, the self-centered man sends the message that he does not see new people as a value (except as receptacles for information about himself). Not surprisingly, this turns people off.
Since many aspects of one’s personality become automatized, the self-centered man may get the feeling that he is socially awkward, but he doesn’t know why. Social ineptness due to self-centeredness can build on itself, as one automatizes the impression that new people do not value him properly. If the above example describes how you get to know new people, then I advise you to reevaluate your methodology. If one takes the self-centered approach in meeting new people, then he is more likely to be a self-centered friend and a self-centered lover. A friend who doesn’t take stake in your values is not a friend. The lover who is uninterested in your interests is a shitty boyfriend.
How then does the (properly) selfish man approach meeting new people? Because he views other human beings as potential values, he aims to explore the nature of those values. His objective is not to talk about himself, but to explore the values of others. He tries to make the new person comfortable, asks questions, and strives to relate the new person’s values to his own. Of course the selfish man will talk about himself, but that is not his primary focus. Assuming that the new person is also selfish, the probing questions will go both ways: “So what do you do when you’re not working?” “I enjoy reading adventure books like The Three Musketeers. How about you, what are you into? Etc, etc.”
If it turns out that the new person is a dud, then the selfish man has lost nothing. But if the new person is a potential friend (or lover), then he has taken the first step toward treating this person properly as a value. Such an attitude is obvious to others, and is most often greatly appreciated. If you have ever met a man who tried his best to make you comfortable, showed interest in your interests, and strived to relate your values to his -- then you know what I’m talking about. These selfish men are the very definition of social aptitude. They are the men who make friends, influence people, nail the interview, and get the girl. The selfish approach also can become automatized in the subconscious, giving one a feeling of confidence in his social interactions.
The selfishness vs. self-centeredness misunderstanding is fairly common among Objectivists. It’s an easy error to make, but it can be a difficult one to rectify. If you value relationships, make sure you take the selfish approach. And get over yourself already! :)