Dear Dr. Chani,
I am writing this specifically in reference to your most recent column. When I read about the several instances that were shared reflecting guys’ “self-absorption” and thoughtlessness on dates, what immediately came to my mind was the idea of a “fundamental attribution error.” While not defending or excusing the guys’ behavior, I do not think it is fair to walk away with the conclusion that they were simply rude and self-absorbed.
When I think about the two instances that the letter writer described about how her daughter felt mistreated on dates, I think that it is possible to look at the situation differently. On one date, the daughter was left by a train station to go home by herself late at night. As a guy, I can tell you that it is hard to be aware of how threatening it could feel for a girl to be out on a train late at night. Since she traveled by train to get to the date, it is possible that the guy thought it was not a big deal for her to return home by train. Instead of concluding that the guy was simply self-absorbed, why could she not ask about it after the date in an open and non-judgmental way?
In the second example, a guy took the girl to a sports bar and kept looking at the screen featuring the sports game behind her as she was talking to him. While I certainly agree that it is rude to be glancing at a game at a sports bar while on a date, it sounds like the guy was not intentionally avoiding her. He was clearly interested enough to want to go with her on another date. So why did she not try to understand his behavior? Why did she not ask directly what was going on? Maybe he simply did not realize the extent to which she was offended?
Something similar to the first story happened to me early on in my own dating. The date had been going later than I planned and realized that I was running late for a different commitment. Once I realized the time, I was a little abrupt and did not properly see to it that the girl had a way to get back that was comfortable for her. After the date, the girl relayed overall positive feelings to the shadchan but mentioned how she was bothered by how I ended the date and how I did not make sure that she got home safely. The shadchan relayed it to me sensitively with proper context, and I apologized for it on the next date (which, in the moment, might have even helped things move forward even more.)
I am not saying that anyone should simply settle with someone with serious flaws. But I do not think it is appropriate to draw sweeping conclusions about someones’ core character after a few initial interactions. In fact, why not use it as an opportunity to simply understand each other better?
I appreciate your insightful and thoughtful comments on the letter in my recent column. You demonstrate how there is always more than one way to look at any situation, and raise important questions about the perils of jumping to conclusions.
I particularly enjoyed your application of the fundamental attribution error. This psychological concept refers to the tendency of people to attribute someone’s behavior to his personality rather than to situational factors that might have contributed to the behavior. For example, if David comes late to a date, Sarah might judge that the behavior is the result of David’s personality flaw. She might conclude that it is a sign that David is inconsiderate or disorganized. Yet, the reality is that there are many situational reasons why David could have come late to that date. He might have had an unexpected delay or he might have taken a wrong turn on the highway.
The fundamental attribution error is particularly relevant to dating, because people tend to make judgments about someone’s character traits based on relatively few interactions. Sometimes, the pressure that people feel to make decisions about whether to go out with someone again might cause them to jump to judgments about someone’s personality more than they normally would. This tendency can cause people to draw mistaken conclusions and to make premature decisions without giving someone enough of a chance. It can prevent a person from maximizing the opportunity to build a relationship with someone, someone who might have turned out to be a great match.
Your own story about getting feedback from a girl you dated is a great example of the importance of giving balanced feedback. It was much easier for you to be receptive to her questioning because the girl you dated gave her feedback in the context of positive feedback. Your experience also shows the importance of keeping an open mind while communicating your concerns. To her credit, it sounds like she was able to delay judgment about how you ended the date until she got more information and got to know you better.
When hearing stories about people acting in disappointing ways on dates, we can look at these stories from two perspectives, the individual and the communal. Every person that dates is an individual. Each date is an experience that is unique to that dater. A person can make mistakes, sometimes without realizing that any oversight occurred. You point out how specific situations can be explained in more than one way. This is an extraordinarily important point that can help people choose their reactions carefully and productively.
At the same time, there is a world of daters. Thousands of people are dating at any given time. We might term the group of dating individuals as the dating community. Over time, a community develops accepted norms, attitudes, and behaviors. Sometimes these are spoken about openly and sometimes they just evolve from common experiences. The way the dating community acts as a whole affects the individuals involved.
As the mother pointed out in her letter about her daughter’s dating experiences, the world of daters – and the world in general – can gain from focusing on the needs of the other. The dating community can benefit from working towards the goal of developing greater mutual respect and consideration. Especially when one is dating and trying to find his match, it is essential to focus on the needs of the other person, too. This idea goes beyond specific individuals and is something the community, in general, can improve on. Even though each story can be explained in more than one way, the overall principle is exceedingly important. When we are more considerate about others, they gain, and we do, too.
Wishing you much success,