I often tell my students that having psychological knowledge is not the same thing as actually applying it. Sometimes we know what to do but we fail to exercise our option. Psychologists (like me) often draw faulty inferences outside the safe confines of the classroom or miss the opportunity to connect the right dots. Misreading people and their intentions is all too easy. The clearest, most applicable theory can fail to be applied (or remembered!) in the murky waters of daily social life. And sometimes we just fail to correct people, tell them the truth, or rectify a misunderstanding, sometimes to our own social peril. Alas, an education in psychology is not a social shield or a license to behave well.
I am reminded of this reality because of an awkward social situation I've let go on for too long. I live in what I refer to as a "John" sort of neighborhood-green, leafy, and quiet, inhabited by content professionals who socialize with each other. And by "John" I mean John Cheever and John Updike. Think of all those suburban spots portrayed in their respective fictional works where lawns are well-tended, there are kids and dogs aplenty, mostly friendly gossip, casual get-togethers, and the occasional mystery behind the hedge. People know one another. Or should, as we will see in my case.
About two years ago (it might be father back---who knows?), I was outside, probably walking my dogs. A neighbor who lives a block or so away was walking her dog in front of the house across the street from our own. Let's call her Amy (and let's be honest, I didn't know her name then-my memory is less Rolodex-like than I might prefer). She waved enthusiastically at me, nodded a knowing smile, and said "Morning, Drew!" or something like that. I waved back as I did a double-take, wondering if I heard her right. A brisk walker, she, her long strides, and the dog were gone in a flash.
Morning Drew? Did she say that? Drew? Maybe I misheard her? Now, to be fair, I have an unusual first name for a male, one that has been a continual source of humorous stories over the years. I've been called Dan, Dhann-uh, Dane, Dan-aye, and-my personal favorite-Duh-Nay (in case you are wondering, my name is pronounced as "Day-Nuh," as in the late actor Dana Andrews). When I prepare to write a check, sometimes I get a quizzical glance followed by a request for a picture ID so that the clerk can be sure that really, yes, "Dana" is my first name, and yes, it can be a man's name, too, because, well, I am a man, thanks very much (and, for the record, so was Dana Andrews). But here's the main thing: I've always managed to correct my interlocutor quickly and usually in a friendly way.
Not this time. "Drew" happened again a few days later, same circumstance. "Hell-o-o-o, Drew! Good morning!" I had not misheard. Drew it was-and, Reader, shamefully still is. I've not corrected Amy to this day. And why not? I don't know. I harbor no resentment towards her. She is a nice person, clearly. But, thanks to me, we moved from the realm of understandable social faux pas ("Oh, did I get your name wrong? I'm sorry!") to the realm of the embarrassing ("What is wrong with you---why didn't you tell me?! I've said the same thing for years!"). Doesn't this situation seem Seinfeld-esque to you? What would you do?
What was my exit strategy? Well, I sort of assumed that one or more of our friendly neighbors would eventually mention me (or Amy would mention me) in a casual conversation about nothing ("That Drew, he always waves") and then my true identity would be revealed ("Ohhhhhh-his name is Dana, not Drew, I see, silly me! And he was much too nice to say anything---what a mensch!"). I even told my wife that "Amy will figure it out, she's good friends with the Muhzerskys down the block-I see them chatting all the time-they'll set her straight in no time."
That presumption illustrates the Spot Light Effect, our tendency to overestimate the extent to which other people are paying attention to us and what we do. Think of all those times you believe you've drawn undue attention to yourself by being under or overdressed at a party, or because you spilled something on your shirt and you believe everyone is thinking you are a slob. No one probably noticed anything "wrong" with you, except possibly your odd, nervous discomfort. Why did I assume I would ever be a focus of a conversation between my neighbors and Amy? What made me think Drew, er, Dana, would ever be mentioned? Clearly, I am not much of an attributional object (to use a social psychology term) in my ‘hood.
But the situation is becoming still more absurd. Earlier this week, her husband, Todd, equally affable, was walking the dog across the street from our house. He takes his time while walking the dog. "Hi there, Drew, how are you? Beautiful day, eh?" he said. Oh dear. I gingerly waved, smiling sheepishly. Clearly, this has become a dangerous game. Now I've failed to inform two people about my true name. My embarrassment, no shame, has doubled. Now I'm actually worried that I really might be talked about, that the Muhzerskys will "out" my name to Amy and Todd over drinks on their porch. Or someone else will in some other setting. Wait---uh-oh---the Spot Light Effect again---I need to quit assuming I am more a focus to others that I am in reality (even with my perilous first name). Perhaps I should quit worrying and just assume I am a politely registered face in the neighborhood crowd, a private citizen, not at all a person of interest. But I will have to hope that Amy, Todd, and the dog stay on the other side of the street-if a wave in passing becomes an actual conversation then I'm done for.