Last week this article from the NYT was making the rounds:
To Fall In Love with Anyone, Do This
More than 20 years ago, the psychologist Arthur Aron succeeded in making two strangers fall in love in his laboratory. Last summer, I applied his technique in my own life, which is how I found myself standing on a bridge at midnight, staring into a man’s eyes for exactly four minutes...
I explained the study to my university acquaintance. A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.
“Let’s try it,” he said.
It's a little bit scary to think that one could just make attraction and connection happen, rapidly, in such a way. On the other hand, most people trust in random interaction to bring them together with potential mates.
We have so little time to spare once we set out into adult life; maybe it makes sense, in some circumstances, to try to speed up the getting-to-know-you process. Arguably such a series of questions might help you spot red flags as well as attractive qualities in a potential partner.
(The 36 questions are here.)
The story, true to the tradition of journalists writing (partly) about scientific research, has seized on the aspect of the research which makes for the best story: the one with the happy ending. I would have been very interested to hear the stories of pairs of people who answered the set of personal questions and did not fall in love with each other. Was anyone repulsed? Did anyone stand up and say "I'm not going to do this any more" and leave the room? Did any subject later go out with friends and relate over drinks the hilarious story of the loser from the psychology lab?
I would think this is at least as important. Surely it is just as practical -- and more protective -- to be able to realize quickly that the attractive stranger across the table is not a good potential mate for you.
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I find myself wondering if a similar battery of questions could be devised for a broader purpose: sparking not romantic love, but friendship.
We are increasingly isolated from people in our physically proximate communities, turning instead for moral support to friends we've never met before in real life, linked by shared interest, and long-distance old-friend relationships maintained lightly via social media. These friendships by correspondence are as real and important as friendships carried on by letters have ever been, and in a way they illustrate how rapidly mutual affection, good will, appreciation, and charity can develop. With letters or emails or blog posts and comments, one can go straight to the intellect, giving and taking commentary and ideas at one's leisure, letting one side of the conversation percolate through the mind and memory before sitting down and composing a complete, and thoroughly spell-checked, thought.
I went out for breakfast a couple of weeks ago with a woman who lives a couple of blocks away and has two children whose ages closely bracket that of my 4th child. We'd been Facebook friends for a while, having met at a block party, and she had messaged me (weeks earlier) to ask if I had any thoughts about trying to stay connected to the neighborhood; she was feeling pressured by family to move out to the "safer" suburbs, and knew me as someone who planned to raise my family in the center city.
I really enjoyed talking to her, and we both lamented the difficulty of finding time to nurture real friendships among neighbors. The thing is, even though living near someone is no guarantee that you're going to hit it off or get along -- especially in areas that attract a diverse population, so that you could well find yourself surrounded by people who don't speak your language, or have entirely opposite social philosophy, or have a vastly different lifestyle -- it's incredibly useful to have neighbors who are friends and friends who are neighbors. The opportunity for mutual support, whether it's emergency babysitting, keeping a spare key, or bringing dinner over when someone is ill, is multiplied by the ease of offering that support across the backyard fence. And it's pleasant, too.
And yet: there is so little time. My neighbors mostly have children in school, of course -- not the same schools, since Minneapolis has many charter and magnet schools, and children bus all over town, further meaning that they aren't brought together with each other by commonalities in their kids' schedules. Certainly the schedules have little in common with that of my kids, who sleep till nine and stay up till eleven. There isn't time to build the kind of ongoing conversation that brings people into a real relationship. And why would we invest the time, in the unknown stranger across the backyard fence, when we can take that conversation back to our computers and get instant gratification from faraway friends we've already made?
I think the answer is to be more deliberate, to voice the wishes we have for "connection," to take it from abstract to personal. As awkward as it may be: "Let's try to become friends." Once we've grabbed coffee with that other mom after preschool music class, or played a lunchtime chess game with the guy from the cubicle down the hall, what if there was a fast way to move from casual acquaintance to more -- to "one of my good friends," to "buddy from work."
There are less efficient ways, even more ludicrous ways, than a questionnaire. But even the questionnaire is just an excuse, a peg on which to hang the real act of deliberate connection: revealing your real self with honesty, possibly to be disappointed, even rejected.