More on pattern-detecting

My parents recently took a holiday which they said would be “longer than usual”, usual being a week. It’s always hard to pin my mum down to exact dates, but the vague dates she would give me implied a three-week holiday. So I was surprised when she rang to say “We’re off!” four days after I thought they’d already gone, and surprised again when she texted to say “We’re back!” four days before I thought they’d be returning. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because they almost never spend more than a week at this particular holiday destination; but I was surprised, because they’d told me that this time was different.

Luckily I don’t live with them, so it wasn’t a case of rushing round to find a French polisher at short notice. The “altered” dates just involved re-adjusting a couple of minor plans. But the whole thing made me think: how many times has someone’s out-of-character behaviour turned out to be not out of character at all? How many times have you thought someone was doing something a bit different, only to find it was crossed wires all along?

There’s a school of thought that says you should watch what people do rather than listening to what they say, which I find enormously problematic. (Unpacking why would take a whole separate blog post, or maybe several.) But there’s a grain of truth there. As I said in my post about persistently early or late people, you have to look at patterns over time.

I’m slowly, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that there are circumstances in which it’s OK to privilege past behaviour over stated intentions when trying to work out what someone will really do. And those circumstances, in a nutshell, are about having access to long-term past data about this person, or organisation, or maybe even this type of person or organisation.

The always-travelling friend who says he’s definitely giving up travelling: you can take his words at face value or think back to the last time he said he was definitely giving up travelling. I keep falling for this line with one particular friend because I really want it to be true; I’d be embarrassed to admit just how many times I’ve celebrated and  bought gifts and made plans on the completely false basis that she was “back for good”, but let’s just say the “WELCOME HOME” bunting is looking a bit tattered.

The bike repair shop that says “We’ll ring you when it’s ready”: did they actually ring you last time, or the time before? Your decision on whether or not to chase them up will be based on that history.

I have countless other tiny, very context-specific examples. Most of them are to do with genuinely good intentions not translating into action, like the boss who swears that next week he’ll help you sort through that pile of old paperwork, but he’s been saying that for three years. (I keep telling my partner I have plans to sort through my own towering, messy piles of paperwork, and I do, I really do, but somehow it doesn’t happen…) We think that future-us will want to watch Schindler’s List, but there’s only ever present-us really, and present-us wants to watch The Hangover Part II or Bridesmaids.

Less commonly, the mismatch between patterns and stated intentions can be about manipulative behaviour. The second woman I described in my study of two poor decision-makers does this. She doesn’t like friends knowing her plans and always pretends to be more spontaneous than she is, possibly out of some obscure fear that her fun could be stolen by other people knowing about it in advance. So she pretends that confirmed arrangements are still vague ideas. With her, it’s incredibly helpful to look at past patterns because almost nothing that comes out of her mouth is true. If she makes vague noises about going on holiday in the UK, you can be pretty sure she’s already booked a holiday in the same coastal town she always goes to, even if she’s still pretending that she might change her mind and go to Florida instead. People who know her better than I do have made an art form out of working out what she’s really up to.

I still believe that listening to what people actually say is hugely underrated,  and I think it’s dangerous to ignore what people say in favour of obsessing over things like body language. But I  also believe that when someone’s stated intentions are at odds with the patterns of their behaviour in the past, you don’t have to take what they say at face value. It’s helpful to look at past behaviour when you’re trying to work out what will really happen. And sometimes just saying “That’s unusual,” or “You don’t normally do that,” will get you a useful response.

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