We’re all terrible at understanding each other

Photo from Harvard Business Review

How can you be sure people think you’re confident rather than cocky? Do you think your husband is a lazy piece of crap because he forgets to take the garbage out, or do you chalk his forgetfulness up to his genius mind solving bigger problems than the trash? Interpretation is everything!

In this Harvard Business Review piece by Heidi Grant Halvorson, we learn despite our best intentions, others interpret our actions in totally different ways than we’d expect.

“I had an office mate in graduate school who was famous for his reserve in romantic relationships. He was a completely closed book. I once asked him if this caused problems for him with the women in his life, and he told me, with remarkable candor, that he did it intentionally – he had found that women would usually interpret his silences in positive ways. (He’s so mysterious.  He’s a deep thinker.  Maybe he’s been hurt before – I’ll bet he’s really sensitive…) The personality they would invent for him, he said, was in fact much better than his actual personality. As a psychologist, I found this fascinating.  As a single woman, on the other hand, I found it more than a little terrifying.”

Our former single self totally fell for that trick. I don’t know if it works in reverse. Do men like women who are closed books? It makes sense that our initial impressions are usually wrong, since we’re only considering a few data points, all of which are subjective to what we’re looking for, but what about when you know someone well? Do we really know anyone well?

“But surely someone who knows you firsthand will see the real you – the self that you see, right? To answer that question, researchers asked nearly 400 college roommates to describe their own personality along with their roommate’s, to see if actually knowing each other, along with time spent living together, would have an impact on perception. Specifically, they wanted to see if over time, your roommate was more likely to begin to see you the way you see yourself.  The answer was yes: so long as you have lived together for a minimum of nine months.  It takes that long for perceptions to even begin to get in sync. And even then, the correlations between how college students saw themselves and how their roommates saw them were surprisingly low, in the .2-.5 range (remember, 1 would be a perfect correlation).”

Any better with marriage couples? Well, there’s a clear distinction in interpretation. Couple in “distress” tend to see simple actions as negative manifestations of character flaws:

“So while Larry may see himself as a fairly conscientious guy who occasionally forgets to take the garbage out (who doesn’t?), his wife, Susan, sees him as irresponsible and inconsiderate, leaving her (once again) to pick up the slack.”

Whereas a couple in a good groove interprets the forgot trash totally differently:

“Bob forgets to take out the garbage, Mary sees him as merely a bit absent-minded, but really that’s understandable given how hard Bob has been working, and really, brilliant people are often a little absent-minded, aren’t they?”

Why are we so bad an analyzing the data?

“Human thought, like every other complex process, is subject to the speed-versus-accuracy trade-off.  Go fast, and you make mistakes.  Be thorough and diligent, and you take an eternity. We are, as Fiske later called us, motivated tacticians – strategically choosing ease and speed, or effort and accuracy, depending on our motivation.  Most of the time, just the “gist” will do, so we choose the speed.”

Here are some truths, according to Halvorson:

  • You are who they expect you to be, in light of their past experience with you.
  • The first impression you give is the “right” one, and it shapes how everything else about you is perceived.
  • You are like the other members of groups to which you appear to belong.
  • If you have a very positive trait (if you are smart, beautiful, funny, kind and so forth) you are likely to have other positive traits.
  • You share the opinions, feelings and foibles of the perceiver but not necessarily his or her ethical standards and abilities.

Our HBLB moral: When you assume… You make an ass out of u an me.

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