By Amy Alkon
Q: My girlfriend of six years is breaking up with me. My question is: How do I let our friends and my family know? I’m thinking a mass email telling my side of the story. Then I wouldn’t have to have the same conversation over and over with different people.—Glum
A: Sending a mass email is a great way to get some piece of information out to everybody—from your best friend to 1.4 million people on Twitter to three random drunk dudes who really shouldn’t be on their phones at their boss’s funeral in Estonia.
The ability we have online to dispense a little information to a whole lot of people, immediately, effortlessly, is about the coolest thing ever—and the Frankenstein monster of our time. As I write in Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, because all the groovy new digital tools are so fun and easy to use, we often “fall back on what’s technically possible” as our behavioral standard. Our chimp-like impulse to just click already derails picky-wicky concerns that we might otherwise have, such as, “Hmm, wonder whether sending that might get me, oh, you know, fired, ostracized and sleeping in a refrigerator box on the corner.”
Consider that anything you email can be rapidly shared—and shared and shared and shared. For example, novelist and professor Robert Olen Butler emailed five of his grad students the sad (and rather creepy) details of the demise of his marriage, asking them to “clarify the issues” for other students who wanted to know. The email quickly made the rounds in the literary world and ended up in The New York Times and on Gawker, where they “clarified” that his wife had left him to become one of four women in “Ted Turner’s collection.”
But even a less tawdry, less tycoon-filled breakup email may go more viral than one might like. Anthropologist Jerome Barkow, who studies gossip, explains that we evolved to be keenly interested in information that could have some bearing on our ability to survive, mate and navigate socially. As Barkow puts it (and as is borne out by others’ research), gossip about how soundly somebody’s sleeping is unlikely to be as spreadworthy as whom they’re sleeping with.
However, our propensity to spread gossip may be both the problem with emailing your news and the solution to getting it out there. Consider going old-school: Ask a few, um, chatty friends to put the word out to your circle, answer any questions people have and let your wishes be known (like if you aren’t ready to talk about it). All in all, you’ll get the job done, but in a much more controlled, contained way—one that reflects this bit of prudence from political writer Olivia Nuzzi: “Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.”
Q: I’ve been seeing this woman for two months. I really like her. She’s made some mistakes—two bad marriages, some promiscuity, running from debts—but she’s determined to change. My friends think she’s bad news. But our relationship—though mostly sexual so far—has been terrific. Shouldn’t my intuition count more than my friends’ opinions?—Fretting
A: When you’re deciding how to invest your life savings, you probably don’t say, “I’ll just take a moment to ask my penis.”
Well, your intuition is about as reliable a judge of your girlfriend’s character. Intuitions (aka “gut feelings”) are conclusions we leap to—automatically, without the intervention of rational thought. Our mind flashes on this and that from our past experience, and up pops a feeling. The problem is, we’re prone to overconfidence that our intuitions are correct, mistaking strong feelings for informed feelings.
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein find that certain people’s intuitions are somewhat more likely to be trustworthy—those who repeatedly encounter the same situation, like a surgeon who only does appendectomies. Her hunches about a patient’s appendix are more informed because they come out of repeated experience and because she presumably gets corrective feedback when she guesses wrong (though, ideally, not from a monitor making that awful flatlining sound).
But Kahneman tells the McKinsey Quarterly, “My general view … would be that you should not take your intuitions at face value.” In fact, you need to go out of your way to look for evidence that your intuitions are wrong. In this case, it will take time and challenges to her character—and your actually wanting to see whether she acts ethically or does what’s easiest. In other words, your hunches can tell you things—things that need a lot of post-hunch verification through applying higher reasoning (which, again, doesn’t simply mean calling upon any organ that’s higher than your knees).