In the Beginning: Part 4 of 4

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Stanford professors Daniel McFarland and Dan Jurafsky published “Making the Connection: Bonding in Courtship Situations”, a study on how people develop initial romantic bonds, or “click”, using the arena of speed dating, in May’s American Journal of Sociology. The series “In the Beginning” elaborates the study’s findings.

As McFarland and Jurafsky evaluated the content of numerous speed dates, they discovered a common pattern of interactions that created a sense of bonding, with each gender playing a common role. Women, for example, click more with men when they have permission to be the target of the four-minute conversation. Men clicked less frequently with women when their interests centered conversations. The study also showed an inverse relationship between connectivity and questions asked; women reported feeling more stress when men asked numerous questions, or, in an effort to keep the conversation going, they had to ask questions of men. Conversations centered around an interview format seemed to create an uncomfortable power structure, one in which the interviewer used question asking to control the date.

McFarland and Jurafsky report that women click with male partners who interrupt them. The Stanford professors discovered that men who interrupted in speed dates seldom did so not to control the conversation, but rather as a way to share meaning with their partners. These men brought up shared experiences, opinions, and stories to continue and extend ideas expressed by women. Partners who clicked had a consistent ability to complete the sentences of others. Interruption conveyed a desire to co-construct narratives using experiences and anecdotes from individual daters.

Active listening, or “interrupting” in McFarland and Jurafsky’s research, can be difficult. Rohit Bhargava, founder of the Influential Marketing Group, describes interrupting and listening as polar ends of a continuum. Listening strictly with your ears involves passivity, and often results in a restriction of information sharing. Interruption carries a negative, aggressive connotation in the social etiquette of many; those who interrupt may be perceived as self-centered and power-hungry. Our initial social experiences promote passive listening and punish interrupting, as they exist in the midst of a clear power structures (elementary schools), so many people lack the ability to actively listen.

Interrupting, Bhargava explains, is “an art”, and lists several tips for improved interrupting. (Asking questions works in a professional context as a way to reduce existing power structures. Ideally, daters enter relationships on an equal power level, where unfortunately, many attempt to create a power structure to deal with their anxieties. That’s another blog post.) McFarland and Jurafsky note that male daters that clicked the most had the most experience with dating, adding to the notion that active listening/interrupting takes practice.

Positive interrupting seeks to create a collaborative meaning and understanding, while negative interrupting aims to dictate a (usually inappropriate) power hierarchy.

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