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What Freud never knew

Why Rude People Get Dates

When it comes to romance, insults can create an attraction all its own.

According to aphorist Mason Cooley, “Flattery and insults raise the same question: What do you want?” When this sentiment is applied to dating, people tend to believe that flattery will get them everywhere. After all, who doesn't want to hear compliments about being attractive, smart, or mesmerizing? As one would expect, research shows that flattery tends to elicit favorable reactions in dating situations — even when it's patently insincere. But what about the opposite tack? Could insults also be an effective way to woo a love interest?

In a recent and lively study by psychologists Neill Korobov and Justin Laplante of the University of West Georgia, the authors investigated whether improprieties between potential romantic partners could establish a sense of connection, and promote intimacy between them. Though counterintuitive, previous research reveals that breaches in decorum can actually produce positive results. For example, in a study that looked at a wide range of reactions to inappropriate talk, from rejection to connection, those on the receiving end of improprieties tend to resist it at first and eventually relent; repeated violations of good taste ultimately acted as a social glue. In a similar vein, teasing and sexual innuendos have been found to encourage intimacy because it often makes people laugh, which in turn encourages flirting. Related research has also shown how couples' “tit -for-tat” name calling can draw them closer because a conflict can be addressed in a reciprocal way. Taken together, these efforts demonstrate that engaging in certain forms of improprieties can serve to advance intimacy rather than impede it.

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In order to pursue how improprieties would play out in an initial romantic encounter, Korobov and Laplante organized a speed dating event. As it happens, such a social function is not out of character for this particular university as they host one every Valentine's Day. To set the mood, the researchers reconfigured the entire floor of a building to give it a lounge-like atmosphere, complete with small tables, chairs, and decorations. Drinks and food were also provided.

The 24 participants (12 men and 12 women ) were either students at the university or friends of the students who resided in surrounding community, with many dressing up for the occasion. In order to meet the study's inclusion criteria, they had to be single and “currently interested in a romantic relationship.” They were given an overview of what speed-dating is and how the six-minute conversations would unfold. During the event itself, the women stayed seated while the men rotated every six minutes. Each participant had a clipboard on hand, and assigned their dates with a “yes” or a “no” rating. In the final tally, 72 speed dates took place. Following the festivities, all the couples that matched were notified through email, and provided with contact information accordingly.

The authors proceeded to analyze the dialogue that took place between the speed daters, coding them for improprieties across the board. They subscribed to an overarching definition of impropriety: “'consequential, programmatic actions” that are “breaches (in) conversational standards of courtesy, propriety, tact, ethics, commonality, etc. etc., the breach in conventional standards at least potentially being offensive to other parties to the interaction.'” Given the wide scope, the researchers noted “all moments” of impropriety that occurred during the speed dating sessions.

What did they find? Two types of improprieties proved particularly common in this study. The first was insults about those who were not present, or, more technically, negative category attributions of non-present others. These comments often served to differentiate oneself from someone else who was cast in a negative light. Consider the following exchange,* for example: 

Male: Anything interesting so far?

Female: Uh no. No weird people. No craziness. Whatabout’u. Any girl’s trippin on’ya yet?

M: No not yet. Well I mean that last one I think. Well. What’s her name. Alicia?

F: Hhahhha okay.

M: I: yah. I didn’t like her.

F: [hhhaahh]

M: T’be uh honest.

F: Oh, yes.

M: Yeah.

F: She seems very, I don’t want say dingy cause that’d be rude. But like smart dingy type. Like trying to use it to her advantage.

M: Mmhhh.

F: But in an annoying way.

M: Yeah.

 

The second type of impropriety was insults directed to the potential love interest, which was termed insults to the present conversational partner. These norm violations tended to amount to teases or flirtations that fortified connections between the speakers. The authors referred to the following dialogue to illustrate the dynamic.

 

Male: I dunno bout most people. But when I watch a movie. I end up afterwards. I don’t have any discussion about it . It’s like I’m thinking bout all the cool stuff I’ve just seen and I can’t really explain it all.

Female: That means you think too much.

M: Think too much? . Uh: sure.

F: Wl’that’s not good. Not all the time.

M: Huh is that uh(hh)right(hahh). Well I do do a lot of thinking. Political science major.

 

What can we make of these findings? The authors state that, generally speaking, improprieties can stoke intimacy because of their ostensibly “troublesome” nature. Though research and conventional wisdom tout the importance of appropriate behavior in the initial stages of a relationship, this study uncovered a twist: Dating competition will probably encourage people to say or do things to stand out from the crowd. From this perspective, employing standard conversational strategies could be a drawback because its flat and forgettable. By contrast, snappy repartee has a better chance of making a lasting impression — and insults in particular can create a sense of familiarity and connectedness between individuals. That is, just as long as things don't become adversarial between the speakers. Though counterintuitive, the results of this study suggest that perhaps it pays to be judiciously improper.

*Please note that the above transcripts were slightly amended from the original strictly for the purposes of readability.

 

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My other Psychology Today articles can be found here

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M., is a clinical psychologist and journalist. She was formerly the Development Producer and Science Editor of PBS's This Emotional Life.

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