Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Generally I refrain from simply reposting another person's expostulations, but today I'm going to make an exception.

I was reading some question and answer forums earlier today when I encountered an interesting question, something that all of us, I think, can relate to. A user, "socrates," asked: "Why is it embarrassing not to have romantic interest reciprocated?"

"I just called a girl from one of my classes, and invited her to lunch on Wednesday. She said yes, but it was clear that she's only interested in friendship. Embarrassed that my romantic interest wasn't reciprocated, I then acted as though I had only meant it as a friendly invitation all along.
This is completely irrational. There's nothing wrong with being attracted to someone, and her lack of interest doesn't mean that I'm somehow inadequate as a person.
So why is revealing a non-reciprocated romantic interest so embarrassing?"

This got me to thinking; what IS all the fuss about? Surely everyone has been in this situation at some point or another, and yet we still allow ourselves to be embarrassed and discouraged by something so ultimately minor. The responses were... varied, as you might imagine, but then I came across a jewel. The user "mendel" cut right to the heart of the issue:

"The general topic you're asking about is what a symbolic-interactionist sociologist would call impression management. (You might recognize the name Erving Goffman, whose book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life basically addressed the general ideas around the specific case you're wondering about.)
According to the symbolic interactionists, your face (as in "saving face") is the public image you are trying to impress upon others, and in doing so you're actively trying to manage their perceptions about you. As much as you can control this you create a definition of the situation that you try to impose on others (or, at least, have a consensus on).
When you ask a girl out and she imposes her own definition of the situation (friendly lunch, not a date) on yours, all of a sudden your impression management mechanisms fail; you need to create a new face on the fly without letting her know that you're doing so, and also try to make it seem like what you'd done up until that point was consistent with the new definition of the situation.
That's hard to do, and it means that a lot of the bits that make up your public face don't work so well -- you'll say awkward things, stumble on thoughts and speech, and worry that you'd said something before the definition of the situation changed that you can't fit in with the new definition. When that happens, you think that the other people in the conversation see the "real" you instead of the impression you are managing -- you feel like you've lost control over your public face. Everyone does impression management, but no-one wants to admit that they do, and when it's obvious that it's happening it feels like you're missing some important social skills, and I think that's where the embarrassment comes from. It's not socially acceptable to expose your impression management mechanisms but you're afraid you've had to do so when the definition of the situation changed.
(On the other side of the coin, if she's smooth and catches what's going on, she'll let you find your way around the new definition of the situation and ignore any past actions that are incongruent with it, and once the two of you have implicitly agreed on the new situation it feels a lot less embarrassing because you can be engaging in normal impression management again.)"

I know that's a lot to read, especially considering that it didn't come from yours truly, but if you got this far I have to ask: How close did this hit to home?

1 comment:

Travis said...

Extremely interesting. I've wondered about this a lot, actually. Although i could never place my finger on it so eloquently as the poster, "Mendel", I always knew it was about control. By being rejected, even in the kindest way, a person feels like they're losing control on the situation, and all any of us ever wants is to control our own worlds.

But I suppose this also has a good side. If we didn't feel so vulnerable when our interests weren't reciprocated, maybe we wouldn't feel so joyous, so absolutely elated and overjoyed when our romantic interests ARE reciprocated.

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Nick Woll grew up in the Florida Keys, and is furthering himself in the fields of writing, software development, and web design. You can contact him at nwoll27 at gmail dot com.