In a previous post, I described how self-fulfilling prophecies work. I used as an example the classic research on teachers’ expectations about their students and how those expectations get confirmed, even when they are wrong. Here, I want to apply this research to my favorite topic – single people.
Of course, there are countless factors that influence human behavior; other people’s expectations comprise just one of them. Moreover, some people may be more resistant than their peers to the expectations of others. With those qualifications in mind, how – if at all – do you think your own behavior as a single person might be shaped by other people’s expectations?
Here I’ll offer just three examples of how single people can, unwittingly, end up confirming other people’s false beliefs about them.
What happens when you are asked the question, “Are you seeing anyone?”
You see someone at a social event whom you haven’t seen for a while. (Let’s assume it is a woman for this example.) The first thing she asks is, “Are you seeing anybody?” Then, when you say no, she gives you the pity-look. Our facial expressions often mirror one another’s in a way that can be nearly automatic. So if someone is giving you that sad-eyed look, you are probably not going to respond with a great big smile – at least not at first. So think about what has happened. Your acquaintance has elicited an unhappy facial expression from you. Maybe you even do feel a little sad at the moment – not because you are not seeing anyone, but because your acquaintance thinks your relationship status is the most interesting thing about you. Moreover, when that acquaintance looks back at the evening, what does she recall? That the first thing the two of you discussed was whether you were seeing anyone. (Never mind that she brought it up.) Maybe she also remembers that unhappy look she pulled out of you. Now she has her expectations confirmed, at least in her own mind – you are unhappy that you are not seeing anyone!
When happens when you try to talk about something other than whether you are seeing someone
When you try to talk about the things that are important, meaningful, or exciting to you, the same person we have been discussing acts only minimally interested and then changes the subject. Has she gotten you to doubt whether you really do find those aspects of your life fulfilling? (Hopefully not, if you are a regular reader of this blog, but consider everyone else.) Once more, at the end of the evening, she might remember that what the two of you discussed the longest was your status as “not seeing anyone,” again taking this as support for her belief that nothing matters more.
What happens when you start discussing the people you both know
When you start discussing people you both know, the first thing she asks about each of them is whether they are in a serious romantic relationship. (This really has happened to me.) Maybe you will go along, if only to be polite. Aha! You have confirmed your friend’s expectations one more time. Now she thinks that you share her belief that the most interesting thing imaginable about the people you have in common is whether they are in a romantic relationship.
What do you think? Could acquaintances, relatives, and others who believe that singles are miserable, lonely, and desperate to find The One get you to doubt yourself? Could you end up feeling a bit sad and lonely, even if you did not feel that way before the conversation began? If you don’t think you would be affected by other people’s stereotypes and expectations, what about other singles – could they be affected? I guess an even bigger question is how you can stand your ground and be the person you really want to be, even if others don’t get it about the life you prefer.