Earlier this week, a friend of mine told a little story that I love. He’s a professional photographer, and he had just done engagement photos for a very happy couple. He got to know them well enough to learn their background. Here’s how he told the story:
A nerdy guy fell in love with a beautiful, beautiful girl in high school. He wrote her love letters. He told her he would do anything for her. She wasn’t having any of it and dated not-nerdy guys all through high school. Then she dated hot guys in college. Her life got vapid as guy after guy used her then ditched her. She had a kid. She kept dating hot but awful guys. Then, one day, she decided that she should call the nerdy guy who fell in love with her from high school, because these other guys were bad people and the nerdy guy was the best person she could ever remember meeting. Now she’s going to marry the nerdy guy and they’re happy and madly in love.
I thought it was a great story about the triumph of love and about how people can grow and change, finally realizing what’s most important in life. It seemed like a pretty clear-cut happy ending to me, so I posted this feel-good story on Facebook for my friends. I quickly found out that other people viewed the story through very different lenses.
“Yeah, now that’s she’s used up,” one friend commented, and he followed it up by expanding on his thought. “This woman has a bad track record and she’s defaulting to her last best option; but, people rarely change, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t have an affair or leave him for the next hot guy. Good luck, nerd, I sincerely hope it works out well for you, but keep your eyes open.”
Another woman told the story of her own bitter experience of having rejected a nerd in high school, focusing on the hard lessons she learned from her own behavior.
“In high school, there was this frumpy fat nerd that I laughed at when he asked me to the prom,” she said. “Two kids and a divorce later, I meet the perfect man for me. Good looks, great body, excellent job. I never even remembered fat and frumpy from school, until he told me that he could never even consider being in a serious relationship with me, because in high school, I was such a cold hearted bi^#*. That is the one time in my life that I can actually say my heart was broken. I hope I made up for it by raising my son and daughter to be friends with the nerds, and to take up for the kids that got bullied, because they were probably going to marry one of them some day!”
Some men were much more cynical than I’d imagined them being. Here’s an example.
“In the immortal words of Mr. T., ‘I pity the fool,'” this man said in his comment. “He should stay where she left him, on the friend ladder. Now he will have the obligation of supporting her while raising some other guy’s kid, dealing with the ex and get wiped out in the coming divorce. (It will come and she will file for it!) All for the pleasure of being reminded every day of his life that he was once again the last nerd picked to play this game also.”
The thread currently has 56 comments — most of which I don’t have room to try to quote here — and many of them are very negative and judgmental toward the woman in the story. Conversely, one woman commenting in the thread somehow believed the story is biased in favor of nerds, implying that they don’t play the field, too.
I still think the story is just a sweet narrative about someone coming to her senses after learning hard lessons in life and a story about a good guy finally getting what he had wanted years ago. But the conflicting interpretations remind me of something.
There is no single, objective, correct interpretation for any story. Everybody in that thread — including me — interpreted the story through the lens of his own experiences and beliefs. I have a belief — possibly irrational — in the power of love to triumph. I have a belief that people can change and can overcome past mistakes (including with each other). I don’t necessarily think about those beliefs consciously a lot, but if you look at my reaction to the story, you see my unconscious beliefs reflected in how I interpret the story.
Other people — such as a number of the commenters on my Facebook page — don’t believe that people can change. Maybe they’ve been burned by certain types of people enough that they assume change isn’t going to happen. So they see the woman in the story as someone who hasn’t really changed and who will only end up hurting the nice nerd again. Various other people will interpret the story in still different ways, all because they have different beliefs, things they might not even be consciously aware of.
It’s really difficult for us to interpret any narrative without putting it through the lens of our own experience, even if our own experience is irrelevant to that particular story. It’s hard to escape that “self bias,” and it really reduces the possibility of us understanding each other. The truth of that story seems to be that the couple are happy, but nobody is willing to let go of his existing belief and say, “Well, maybe this is different from what I’ve experienced.”
Communication seems so simple, but sometimes clear communication is actually almost impossible.
Unfortunately, this tendency plays itself out in various areas of life, not just in the ways we interpret love stories. It means that we see political events and ideas differently. We see stories about religion, culture, crime, race and a million other things through biases that we might not even realize are there.
This is why intelligent, well-meaning people can look at identical sets of facts and come to very different conclusions. It’s not necessarily the case that the other person is stupid or naive or has bad intentions, as we’re so prone to believe. It frequently just means that we have different assumptions about the world — and we can’t help bringing those assumptions to bear on our judgement.
The next time you realize that you’re interpreting a story in a radically different way from someone else, ask yourself why. Realize that the other person probably has good intentions and is being just as honest as you are. It doesn’t do any good to get angry and call the person names. Instead, try to understand why the person believes what he believes.
You’ll probably still disagree with him, but maybe it can keep your blood pressure down. And maybe it can be a reminder that we’re never all going to see the world the same way, because we all have different beliefs and experiences — which shape what we see.
I still think the story about the couple is wonderful. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe that people can overcome their mistakes and that love can triumph. Maybe it’s just what I need to believe, but it unconsciously colors the way I see the world. Your assumptions likewise color your world.