Field Guide To The Yenta
Sizing up matchmakers and meddlers.
By January 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
Latin Name: Overbearingus relentlus
Notable Characteristics: Bursting with good intentions, often far too many. Sees every interaction as an opportunity to squeeze in advice about your love life/job search/pie recipe. Spotted in maternal and nonmaternal varieties.
Songs & Calls: "She's just not right for you—a mother knows." "I'm just saying, I have a guy who has a guy who can do a better job on your windows." "Nonsense, of course you need help!"
"Boyfriend schmoyfriend—my nephew would be perfect for you." These are the words of a real-life yenta. She knows better than you do which mate you should choose, which career is right for you, even which tablecloth works best with the curtains-you-don't-yet-own-but-have-to-get, and she's told you twice now so why aren't you listening? She foists advice on you with more force than the Niagara but has no idea you're drowning.
Traditionally, yenta defined a busybody or gossip. An outgrowth of the classic Jewish mother, an overbearing matriarch once made sense—in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. "She really was raising kids in a dangerous world," says PT's Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps, a study of invasive parenting. "There were pogroms and rampant abuse of Jews." As a result, she became overprotective. And because Jewish mothers got their power in the community through the status of males, they took pains to see that their daughters married well, and prodded their sons to enter religious leadership, medicine, and other fields that would confer prestige.
Today, when the dependence of children is often prized even in the absence of danger, that let-me-tell-you-what-to-do-and-whom-to-be-with intrusiveness has spread to women of almost all backgrounds—as well as to some men. Though the prodding, overinvolved person is often inclined to meddle in the lives of his offspring, he can also take the form of the man at the bus stop who volunteers that your briefcase doesn't look sturdy enough for the papers you're carrying, or the woman at a party who gives your boyfriend a sidelong glance and insists you could do better. These types annoy mostly because their opinions are unsolicited. And because sometimes, although you hate to admit it...they're right.
CASE STUDY: The Matchmaker (Overbearingus relentlus cupidus)
To folks who are content being single or are happy with their current mate, the yenta is downright irritating. But is the woman who tries to fix you up with her nephew a marriage-crazed know-it-all with too much family pride or is she onto something? Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher, chief scientific adviser to dating site Chemistry.com, says that some people are in fact more tuned-in to compatibility.
Those who have more active estrogen and oxytocin systems in their brains are particularly adept at guessing what others are thinking, reading emotions, and piecing together the big picture of someone's personality. They also tend to have good verbal skills, high intuition, and a sense of caring—all traits that are helpful to pairing off lovebirds. That makes women, she adds, more biologically disposed toward matchmaking. "Throughout history, women have been the better 'seers,'" Fisher says.
Not everyone agrees. "There's a stereotype that women have this special intuition that can't be boiled down to science," says Jeremy Nicholson, a psychologist who has taught at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He believes it's empathy and extraversion that make others gravitate toward setting people up. Cupids also thrive on a challenge: Those who get a kick out of solving social puzzles are more likely to spot compatible friends or family members and hatch a plan to introduce them.
Both experts believe that while there may be a few yentas out there trying to live vicariously through others' juicy details, most simply like helping people connect. And they enjoy feeling appreciated, too, says Fisher. You don't forget the person who introduced you to your love.
CASE STUDY: The Meddler (Overbearingus relentlus buttinskus)
It doesn't matter how minor a decision you're making or how knowledgeable you are about it: The meddler will correct you. Though it may seem controlling when your grandma, a pal, or—even worse—a complete stranger tells you how you should do your hair or which cereal you should eat, in reality, meddlers are usually well-meaning.
"It may look like people are being self-centered when they meddle, but my guess is that it's altruism run amok," says Lynn O'Connor, director of the Wright Institute's Emotion, Personality, and Altruism Research Group.
O'Connor, a contributor to the book Pathological Altruism, contends that the overbearingly caring person has an outsize feeling of responsibility for others. His empathy system is in overdrive, and he sees problems even where they don't exist. What's more, he not only wants to mend the holes in your life but feels a keen sense of guilt if he doesn't try. It may be hard to believe when you're on the receiving end of unsolicited advice, but the pathological altruist honestly thinks that not telling you which dish soap to use would be a crime.
Meddlers probably inherit some genetic vulnerability to anxiety and guilt, and absorb behaviors they've seen at home. "We imitate our parents' most disgusting attributes out of a kind of loyalty," says O'Connor, who admits she's not the most hands-off person when it comes to advising her kids.
In a country with a ballooning anxiety problem, our collective tendency to worry unhealthily about others may not dissipate anytime soon. Still, O'Connor insists, busybodies really do mean it when they tell you they care.