In nature, bright colors are often a warning: I’m poisonous! Don’t eat me! Stay away! Insect-eating birds avoid any butterfly who looks like a monarch, intelligent residents of the Amazon refrain from handling poison dart frogs, and only a fool would eat that bright red mushroom in the meadow. However, in the forest of social life, bright colors are often an invitation: I’m friendly, gregarious, approachable, somewhat outrageous, thoroughly interesting, and definitely not poisonous.

My friend Janice Simpkins taught me a handy heuristic based on this insight, which has served me well on numerous occasions: “If you find yourself stranded in a room full of strangers—at some social function—talk to the person wearing the loudest outfit, because that person is invariably the friendliest person in the room.”

But alas, in nature and in social life, we sometimes encounter false advertising. Biologists call it mimicry. For instance, the red milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum syspila) is not poisonous, nor is the equally harmless scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides). Yet predators steer clear of them both because they look like the deadly coral snake (Micrurus fulvius).

Likewise, in social life, we sometimes encounter brightly colored bores (e.g., middle-class hipsters who dress like bohemians but talk like accountants). The sense of betrayal that washes over you when you find yourself stuck in a pointless conversation with one of these philistines is surprisingly intense: their mimicry seems to offend our innate sense of social justice. Brightly colored bores should come with a warning. Something like this:

WARNING: OBJECTS BEHIND
THIS INTERESTING PERSONA
ARE DULLER THAN THEY APPEAR

Hiding in Plain Sight

If you’ve seen Catch Me If You Can (2003), you know how easy it is to fool people when you look the part. What’s less obvious is that the opposite is often equally true. People like me, who’ve been fooled one too many times by smooth-talking charlatans in suits, are often overly critical of anybody who looks the part, and overly trusting of unkempt vulgarians. But alas, exceptionally good con artists have always known this.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau mastered the art of playing rich people. An impressive feat, when you think about it, because rich people are surrounded at all times by a cloud of people who are trying to play them. How did he do it? By playing the part of the uncouth but thoroughly down-to-earth guy who just doesn’t give a fuck. It’s a well-worn ploy. At least as old as Romanticism. And we ignore its allure at our peril. Protecting yourself from the Frank Abagnales of this world is important. But it’s also good to remember that being rough around the edges can be an integral part of a charlatan’s shtick.

We were raised to believe that common sense is the enemy, things are never what they seem, and judging a book by its cover is the worst thing you can do. This obsession with depths has made it possible for some straightforwardly sketchy people to hide in plain sight. Louis CK is a case in point. We stupidly assumed that a man who talks about what a pervert he is all the time, in public, couldn’t possibly be a pervert in real life. I suspect that Trump slipped under the radar for many of the same reasons.

Most people are exactly what they seem to be. That nice guy at work with the perfect teeth: he might be a monster who secretly kills kittens for fun, but he’s probably just a nice guy with perfect teeth. That rude asshole you met online: he might be a misunderstood genius with a heart of gold, but he’s probably just a rude asshole. More often than not, if it looks like a duck, it’s a duck. And if it looks like a schmuck, talks like a schmuck, and walks like a schmuck, it’s a schmuck.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2018)