How to get to know a stranger quickly

A couple of days ago, I had a really interesting discussion with Alma about the challenges of getting to know people in the academic classroom setting, when it’s the only place where you have contact.

I think a couple of the points from our discussion are applicable to the dating scene, especially to Bunni’s comment under the fourth post that it’s very difficult to get to know someone’s deeper qualities based on what they tell you on first or second dates.

Point #1:  It’s much easier to figure out people’s strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and credibility when you are able to observe them in any activity that requires demonstration of dependability, skills, knowledge, ability and interaction with others while under the pressure to perform.

For example, Alma got to know her sailing teammates (and to a lesser extent people on other teams) in a compressed period of time through direct observation and indirect corroboration by:

  • Seeing who shows up on time prepared to work out, practice and race.
  • Sailing with different people on a 2-person boat at practices and regattas.
  • Hearing others comment on their current and past experiences sailing with each other.
  • Hearing coaches comment on how individuals and pairs performed in a variety of situations, and give critique on how they can improve.
  • Observing people’s behavior and communication during regattas, and when not racing.
  • Seeing how people respond to wins and losses, and when receiving comments and critiques.
  • On long trips to regattas, swapping stories about family and friends, and discussing/debating ideas or topics that come up.
  • At social events, seeing what people’s friends are like, how they interact with others.
Taken together, these are optimal opportunities within a two to three month period to observe and learn about someone’s patterns of behavior in terms of self-motivation and motivation of others, resiliency, communication style, relationships, sense of humor, concern for others, appreciation of others’ contributions to the team, openness to input and making improvements, problem-solving ability and style, performance under stress, and passion, commitment, and follow-through.

In summary, you can figure out whether a person is one you can rely on and learn from; with whom you can grow, have fun and spend most of your time; who will appreciate you for who you are and what you offer; and will build relationships with those you care about.

Point #2:  Assuming that you have no contact with a person outside limited settings such as the classroom (or on dates at coffee shops and restaurants), you have only their words, voice, body language, attendance and timeliness of arrival (or phone call/text messages) to observe.  You may be able to piece together bits and pieces of the authentic person, but you are seeing discrete slices of the person in a short period of time, and without any benefit of third-party confirmation.  This dilemma makes it easy for one to assume the wrong things about someone — both good and bad.Short of inviting yourself over for three days or joining a sports team together when dating someone, what can you do to size up and figure out a stranger quickly?

While this may take some wily planning on your part, before deciding whether to be exclusive with someone,

  1. learn from him/her the activity(ies) or field(s) which is a source of enjoyment and pride, and in which he/she is an active participant.
  2. Engage the help of someone from within your own circle who has expertise in (or deep knowledge of) that activity or field.
  3. Create an opportunity with sufficient time allowance for the expert to thoroughly assess your date, both when you’re present and when you’re not, to see how his/her behavior changes.

My husband’s favorite example, being a basketball player, is Michelle asking her basketball coach brother, Craig Robinson, to give Barack Obama the once over after they began dating.  Read a version of it on Esquire.  Even if you’re not looking for presidential material, having someone whose judgment you trust observe your date’s performance and reflect on the implications for his/her character is an invaluable way to get that reality check.

Don’t despair if your immediate circle is rather homogeneous — reach outside the circle.  In my immediate circle, I can count on people who have deep knowledge of finances, basketball, medicine, music recording and performance, veterinary medicine, small car racing, cooking, art-making, and linguistics.  If I reach outside of my immediate circle, I can also tap into the world of fundraising, poetry, triathlons, marketing, modern dancing, physics, investment banking, architecture, translation, fashion design, military history, to name a few.

Here’s the point:  You don’t have to figure someone out on your own based on limited information — get a fuller picture of someone’s true character by observing him/her in active pursuit of an interest or passion before you commit.  Sound reasonable?

 / 2 Comments  / in Dating


  1. Dave from Lowell June 24, 2011 5:12 pm - Reply

    I find that I can meet someone and get a sense of who they are quickly by seeing how they respond to the patently ridiculous things that go on around us; if a manager says something truly idiotic in a meeting, or suggests a course of action – or worse – implements a non-negotiable procedure that I KNOW will never work, I look around the table.

    The people who are smirking or shooting covert glances, showing their independence and inability to be a cog in an absurdist machine, these are my people, the ones I talk to during a break.

    Facial expression, body language, eye contact, a conspiratorial glance – these tell me quickly who "my people" are.

    I appreciate Malcolm Gladwell's faith in snap decisions, as written in "Blink." I knew the woman who would be my wife after one conversation. I chose my college in five minutes, because I got in, it had a good rep, and there was an all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet down the street (sadly, between visiting the school and entering as a freshman, the restaurant burned down). I chose my grad school when someone called it snobby and elitist and another told me I wouldn't get in. Five minutes, tops.

    Buying a house, picking interns for my program, all sorts of things. Do it fast, like eating a live animal. Looking for a mate? Look for the conspiratorial glance, the fellow-feeling of humor, get your feet firmly on the ground, and jump. Fast.

    And if it winds up a disaster, don't come crawling to me. You get most of your relationship advice on the Internet? I'd rethink that. And jump. Fast.

    Cheers, human beings!

  2. June 25, 2011 12:27 am - Reply

    Hi Dave from Lowell,

    You are one of the lucky ones who feels confident about your gut reaction to people and situations, which is great. You make a good point that if you are generally correct in your assessment of people, there's certainly no need for you to rely on someone else's assessment or follow someone else's advice.

    Some of us aren't built the same way, however, and there's no shame in getting honest assessments from people one trusts to help figure out a date's character. Better that than beating oneself up for not seeing what might be obvious to others. I know that I have been surprised, pleasantly or otherwise, by how different my initial conclusion about someone was compared to how I felt after a longer and more in-depth acquaintance.

    In the end, we all make our own decisions about whether to pursue a relationship with someone. The point is to give ourselves the benefit of a fuller picture of the person in order to make that decision.

    Thanks for speaking up!

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