I flew up to my parents’ house yesterday, and our plane came in late due to storms. Over the intercom, the flight attendant said that there was “a newlywed couple in row 14 trying to make a tight connection to their flight to Amsterdam, so if rows 1-13 can please let them through before getting up, they’d really appreciate it.” I leaned over to my sister, and said that such an appeal would never work, as I’d seen it fail on a couple other flights. My sister said she’d seen it work several times, and, in fact, the first 13 rows did stay seated until the couple got to the front of the plane.

I was trying to figure out what was different about this time versus the other times I’d seen it fail, and realized that it was the specificity of the appeal. On the other flights I remember, the flight attendant said “We have several people trying to make close connections, please let them through”, and that appeal had no effect, as everybody considered themselves to have close connections, so everybody got up. What was effective this time was that the flight attendant had framed it as a story – the one-line story of the couple trying to get to Amsterdam reified them in our brains as “real” people. The story also invoked our social sense, and made us defer to them as we would for any member of our community.

To give more background on my thinking, my post on the ultimatum game explores how our brains react differently when we have a one-off transaction with somebody (where we try to get all that we can from that transaction) versus how we react when we are part of a community (where fairness becomes a factor as we’ll have to interact with them again in the future). I also argue in the following post that we can use stories to expand our “monkeysphere”, the number of people that we consider to be “real” people as opposed to strangers who we distrust and/or take advantage of.

Making people persons by associating stories with them comes up in many different situations that I can think of:

  • One obvious application is that of user interface design, where I’ve been heavily influenced by Alan Cooper’s tactic of using personas to model real users. In particular, one of the reasons I was effective as a software developer is that I was always developing software for specific people with whom I interacted, rather than for a generic “user”. Because my target audience was specific and real and I knew the stories of how they worked, my software was more effective at helping those people accomplish their goals.
  • Another example is in the area of management, especially in the creation of a divide between managers and workers. When the two sides don’t know each other, there is the tendency to ascribe the worst motivations to the other side, and assume that they are actively working towards one’s destruction. But both sides are just fallible humans doing the best they can. Sometimes there are no good choices as a manager, and the manager is doing the best he or she can under the circumstances. As somebody who interacted with both sides, I saw both viewpoints and therefore couldn’t demonize the managers as arrogant control freaks or the workers as entitled whiners. I couldn’t flatten them out into stereotypes, as their stories kept them real people to me.
  • One last example is in the area of politics, and specifically homosexuality. I grew up in a very sheltered and religious suburb of Chicago, where the default assumption was that homosexuals were deviant and evil. When I got to MIT, and found myself living in a house with such people, I was initially wary. But of course, once I got to know them as people, I realized how stupid and broken the stereotypes in my head were. And this has been my observation of others as well – it’s difficult to treat somebody as a stereotype once you know them as a person, because their specific details supercede the stereotype in your head.

It takes practice to remember to treat others as people, and not as puppet players on whom you are projecting your own fears and hopes. I still fall into the trap of ascribing my own stories to other people and assuming the worst or best, and being surprised either way. Learning to treat others as real people in their own right remains a goal towards which I strive, and I think it’s an essential skill to learn in a massively networked world where we are always interacting with people outside of our own core community.

What do you think?

P.S. A friend’s new blog, Made of Happy, has a neat star rating WordPress plugin, and when I inquired about it, she said it was GD Star Rating, so I just installed it. Now you can provide feedback on my posts without the trouble of having to come up with a comment!

8 thoughts on “Personization

  1. It really informed my thinking about running groups. Modern urban-dwellers tend to default to treating groups as Gesellschaft if they can get away with it. But Gesellschafts aren’t treated as well by their members, hence the need for lots of legalisms to keep them orderly; people treating with Gesellschafts attempt to get away with the minimum they can. So when running a smaller group where I see a threat of that happening, I make a point of, as you say, personalizing things, to toggle participants/members into Gemeineschaft mode, in which people take ownership for things working well.

  2. I couldn’t read this post without thinking of the grim summary of Josef Stalin’s line: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”

    Another supporting case is the way that propagandists work hard to dehumanize the enemy during times of way–anything from the “Two Minute Hate” of 1984, to references to the ‘Huns’ in World War I, or ‘Japs’ in World War II, to many aspects of military basic training.

    Anyway…. although I agree with your thesis, I’m wondering if most of the reason why that couple made it out of the plane quickly was that the flight attendants were able to issue concrete directions in this case (“rows one through thirteen”)–while the typical case (“some passengers have connections”) is just useless handwaving. It’s a bit like what they teach you in CPR classes–you don’t yell, “Somebody call an ambulance!”, you look at a specific person, and tell him or her to call an ambulance, and what specifics to relay to 911.

  3. I think the specificity of the newlyweds on the plane probably may have had a stronger effect than the story-framing of the request. It targeted exactly two people, easily identifiable, rather than “everyone who’s in a hurry”, and explaining the situation let everyone make an independent evaluation of the validity of the claim. Which means that people felt much less like they were being taken advantage of than the generic situation of “people who act like they’re in a hurry should be given precedence” (because you know some self-important business traveler is going to pretend to be connecting just to get out in a hurry, because you know those are the same people who totally ignore the rules about how you’re supposed to stow your carryons). Which meant people could feel good about doing something nice for others, rather than feeling like they were chumps for complying with a request to let people cheat.

  4. This whole “bring out the personal to create a connection that brings results” deal makes me think of one of those blog posts that have been floating around in my head that I never spewed out. Maybe I still will. Maybe. And this is not really well-connected to what you’ve said, but it’s late at night and I have this thought bouncing around in my head. 😀

    The main point that goes really well with what you are saying is that people respond better when they are treated as an individual, a unique snowflake, to be prosaic. Not only does it, as in your example, create connections when you personalize a third party that you are speaking about with a second party, you create a better connection when you personalize your comments to the second party. To illustrate this, here are two examples of compliments in some situation where a guy may be hitting on a girl (I use this example since you are a hetero male :D):

    Situation 1:
    Guy sees pretty red-headed girl, and he thinks her hair is really pretty. Guy makes conversation. Guy gets up enough courage to say, “I really think girls with red hair are so pretty.” Guy intended to give a compliment and to make the girl feel good, but tried to keep it less personal to mitigate risk.

    The probably unintended consequence is that either she doesn’t feel complimented at all because it was so impersonal or in fact feels creepily targetted because of her hair, and makes her feel the complete opposite of special — she is made to feel that the guy didn’t find HER attractive, but the guy would have made the same moves on any girl with red-hair. That “compliment”, when deconstructed, only says something about him, and nothing special about her. He has only outted himself as a fetishist.

    Situation 2:
    Same situation, but he says, instead, “You have really nice hair.” This could go badly, since she may not be open to Guy’s advances, but let’s assume Guy was going to give a compliment based on her hair either way. If she was receptive, this then is a compliment about HER, and not some statement about Guy. This is a much better compliment.

    Going further re: compliments, it’s always best to personlize compliments to active things. For instance, it’s better to say, “I like the way you did your hair,” than “I like your hair,” or “You are always so good at putting together a good story,” rather than, “You have had some funny things happen to you.”

  5. Beemer and Bats: Yes, the specificity made a big difference. I think that’s part of what I mean when I say it’s a story – as Bats suggests, giving specific details makes it a story rather than a statistic. And, now that I think about it, making the instructions specific means that everybody in the plane is now part of the story as Beemer suggests – we could “feel good about doing something nice for others” because we are now part of their story (or vice versa), which doesn’t happen without the specificity.

    Ei-Nyung: Great points that it works better in the second person case as well. Your last comment reminds me of Carol Dweck’s research, which says that it’s important to praise the actions of children not their attributes – “You worked so hard on that puzzle” instead of “You are so smart”. Interesting to think about that in a social situation as well.

  6. I apply those technique at work as well. I praise using personalized words, and I critique (most of the time), using depersonalized words, and asking for a specific action. “You did a great job with your proposal for the feature XYZ. I could really see your careful research and analysis. This will really help us for project ABC,” versus, “I think area MNO needs work and there is a potential scheduling issue because task NNN will take a long time. What do you think we can do about task NNN to cut it down?”

    This means that they see me valuing their role when things go well, and when things go badly, they see the problem as an external thing that we must tackle together, so there isn’t a problem of blameshifting or embarrassment, but we can immediately focus on getting things done.

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