Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thin-slicing, or Why I Like Favorites

Thin-slicing is the art of reading people.  It's about recognizing patterns and qualities with very small pieces, or "thin slices," of information.  Perhaps it's the natural consequence of growing up in a psychologist's home or perhaps it's because we are innately fascinated by people, but I think my siblings and I are excellent at thin-slicing.  I also think English lit. majors are generally better than average at thin-slicing; after all, literary criticism is all about expounding on a thin slice of poetry or prose.

I think this is why I like favorites.  With a simple list, you can get to know someone very quickly and fairly thoroughly.  So if I ask, "What are your top three favorite bands?" and you answer, "The Grateful Dead, The Allman Bros., and  Bob Marley," I'll be able to tell a few things about you: 1) You were probably born in the 70s, 2) You like jam bands, and 3) You have probably smoked pot at some point in your youth.  And 4) If you're a guy, you probably spent some time growing a beard.  And 5) You are super chill and easygoing.

Let's try it again.  I ask you to describe your perfect day, and you say, "It starts at 7:00 in the morning.  I'd go for a run, and . . ."  Immediately, I know some important things about you:  1) You are a morning person.  2) You are an Achiever, as psychologist Donald O. Clifton would say.  That is, being productive is important to you.  The day is not a success unless you've accomplished at least one measurable goal.  If you had said, "I'd get up around 10:00 or 11:00," I'd know that you are most definitely not a morning person.  And I'd know that we'd be really good friends.

Now, some of you are probably rolling your eyes about all of this.  You're thinking to yourself, "You can't categorize me!  I don't fit neatly into one personality type!"  But lookit: Thin-slicing is crucial to survival.  People have to make judgements and assumptions in order to avoid danger in a dark alleyway, for example.  But people use the same skills to determine whether they will be compatible with others.  On the first day of a semester-long class, you may drop the course, if you can sense that you won't like the professor's teaching style.  Or you may decide you're interested in asking a girl on a date because she referenced an NPR story she recently heard.  Or you may decide you don't want to put much effort into getting to know an acquaintance because he mentioned he's really into World of Warcraft.

People thin-slice all the time.  Some of us just happen to be more aware of it than others.  Or to like it more than others.  For my part, I like it.  I think it makes the world seem smaller and more manageable somehow, and yet, it simultaneously makes it vast and interesting.

Thing I'm thankful for: chocolate mousse cake


Anonymous Blake said...

Making assumptions about someone based on thin-slicing does no one credit. People will surprise you if you let 'em.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

Thin-slicing doesn't mean you don't allow for someone to surprise you. It's not about having someone all figured out in some power play thing. It's about noticing details and being able to get a quick and generally accurate sense of a person. Mostly I use it to build bridges and find points of commonality.

But also, making assumptions about people is something pretty much everyone inevitably does on a regular basis; they just may not be aware that they're doing it.

2:36 PM  
Blogger mlh said...

Can you not be friends with people who wake up at 7 and go for a run?

12:54 PM  

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