Field of Science

The trouble with social algorithms

Via Wikimedia Commons, in US public domain.
Say that you're like me, someone who's spent most of their lives observing others for any number of reasons, among them to pick up tips about social rules. To see how "regular" people interact with each other and then work those observations into what I've always thought of as my social algorithms. Even into my forties, I add to these complex social equations so that I can do almost mathematically what seems to come so naturally to others. 

Sometimes, my algorithms go off the rails. Often, I don't seem to make quite the right face or gesture, or I drop the algorithm a bit too soon and start into my other social defense: the personal interview. Once it seems to me that the other person or people and I have sufficiently covered the small talk, I slip into that defensive mode of asking people their life histories--school, childhood origins, experiences, work, interests. People seem to like that, and it works well for me because (a) I am truly interested, always, in the stories of others, and (b) I get to be the listener while they seem to enjoy themselves. I'm not insincere. Just...unsure, and this helps. I can't imagine what I'd feel like if someone took my inner workings and, without my knowledge, made them public for all the world to deride, although I'm obviously comfortable doing that for myself.

If you don't really know what I mean by social algorithms, take a break for a mo' and enjoy this video of Sheldon from the television show "The Big Bang Theory" as he applies just such an algorithm but finds himself stuck in an iterative loop. It's funny, but it also happens to me frequently. 

These algorithms, as my own experience and the experience of the person who developed this scene clearly illustrate, don't always quite work out, and sometimes, they don't include all the necessary variables. Some of us can experience a derailment and brush it off or try to pick up features to add, while others, like Sheldon, simply get...stuck, unable to decipher how the "If X then Y" that they've devised got so jammed up. 

That's what I think happened to Mike, a self-described investment banker who met a woman named Lauren at the NY Philharmonic for a date. While I like life stories, this one's no pleasure to read. Somehow, the story of Mike and Lauren has made it into the public sphere, thanks to the release of an email that Mike sent to Lauren. It's unclear whether Lauren herself released this email or someone else did, but unless Mike made it public, Lauren obviously is the person who aided in catapulting it into the public eye. The email first made its appearance on Reddit and then migrated over to the Huffington Post, where it sits, evergreen, for anyone to read and--as the comments do--mock the man who wrote it. As of this writing, the HuffPo post alone had almost 8000 Facebook shares, about 900 tweets, and about 1700 email shares. The original Reddit post now has 2000 comments.

Some people have interpreted what Mike wrote to Lauren as arrogant or creepy or stalkerish. To Lauren, it was likely all three. Mike claims to have written the email after several attempts to contact Lauren, to none of which she responded. 

Thus, what we have here then is one date, some ignored voicemails and texts, this email, and its release into the public sphere.

While many, many people read the email and thought that Mike was just an asshole, I saw something different. I saw a man whose social algorithms clearly told him that two plus two equals four, while the woman he'd been with saw them as adding up to exactly zero. Throughout the email, Mike lays out with a Spock-like clarity the various factors related to him that should make him desirable: He's got a good job, they both like the NY Philharmonic, they both seem bright, and so on. He also lays out the various social cues he thinks he detected in her, from twirling her hair to saying, "It was nice to meet you" at the end of the date. From his perspective, these cues were heavy with social meaning, and in the robotic calculus that he presents--"On a per-minute basis, I've never had as much eye contact on a date as I did with you"--leads him in frustration to the conclusion, Does not compute. Why are you ignoring me when the solution to this equation is so obvious?

That frustration and his social math are evident throughout his email. He parses--correctly--her "It was nice to meet you statement" as "inconclusive." He offers that according to his calculations, their first date was "nice enough" to warrant a second one. He literally enumerates what he perceives to be their commonalities, as though a human relationship were the mathematical sum of intelligence, a common interest, and being a good match "in terms of age." He's also clearly obsessed with classical music, so much so that he lays it out as his "number one" interest a woman should have if he is to date her. He further points out, using a fierce calculus, how convenient it would be for two such busy people to date as they're already both frequent attendees at the Philharmonic and thus dating wouldn't require any more of their time than they already expend.

Then, he makes some revelations, whether purposely or not, that tell Lauren (and now us) even more. He's an investment banker, but he performs this service for...his parents, and he's quite defensive about that. He notes that while he's gone out with a lot of women, "some" of those dates have been one-time events. Based on these tidbits of information, Mike seems to be a man smart enough to invest successfully for his parents but somehow limited in some way so that they are his only clients, obsessed with classical music, reliant on social algorithms that he can't adjust when they derail, and lacking in a history of lengthy relationships.

In other words, he's someone who seems to have average to above average intelligence but also social deficits that may impair his success in that sphere and an obsessive interest, in this case, in classical music.

In other words, Mike reminds me of a person on the autism spectrum. I can't diagnose Mike, obviously. But his unforgiving calculations, his fixation on how his social algorithms as he understood them didn't work for him, his inability to understand that after an email like this, a woman would not be interested in, as he suggests, "talking on the phone," much less emailing him back--all of these point to a clear kind of social functioning that relies considerably on intellectualized rather than naturally emerging social understanding. It's something I recognized immediately. In spite of my social math, I am sincere in my feelings, and I felt horrible for Mike that this misconceived epistle had become target practice for the world. I know others who'd make this same mistake, these same mistaken assumptions, perhaps even write an email similar to this one, trying to work out their mystification, make the other person just...see. And it seizes me internally to think of this sort of mockery leveled at them.

Am I excusing Mike? Not really. Of course, he would have been better off not typing a 1600-word email to a woman who had ignored his calls and texts. But...Lauren doesn't get off with a clean social graces scorecard here, either. I suspect that had she responded with a clear negative to one of his early texts or calls, that would have signaled "end" to the algorithm. Indeed, the algorithms I know dictate that one should respond to one follow-up contact after a date, especially when one has offered a parting, "It was nice to meet you" as opposed to a clear, "I never want to see you again." And I know with a certainty that taking his email and making it available to others, which she seems to have done, is a social and human transgression of considerable magnitude, one that could cause devastating pain. And I don't need an algorithm to tell me that's wrong.


  1. This is really interesting. I agree with your assesment of everything, and that he does seem to be in the autism spectrum to some degree.

    But when you really think about it....a lot of us go through the algorythm. We just do it with our close friends instead of the date. After a good date or hell, just good sex, the guy says he'll call and then he doesn't what woman doesn't run through all of these cues and commonalities winding up with "does not compute!" in post-date game talk with their girlfriends. I have. All of my friends have. Just we don't say this to the guy.

    Let's go even further past that - Lauren's crime of not responding to his contact, her "It was nice to meet you" polite ending to the date, etc - this all is nothing new in the dating world. At all. Men seem to do it more than women but the "I'll call you" when they really don't mean it gets tossed around a LOT. Why? It's not easy to deliver a rejection to someone's face. It makes us feel uncomfortable. And so we take the easy (coward?) way out and lie.

    Playing Devil's Advocate to myself here, all she said was "It was nice to meet you". She didn't kiss him or even say "We should do this again sometime". Technically then her social cues were not at all what Mike thought they were. Don't we all read more into something than what is actually there? How is it the other person's fault when we assume incorrectly? She twirled her hair - maybe it's a gesture of boredom. Maybe she has ADD like me and can't just sit still, she needs to do something with her hands.

    The base facts are that many people are going to misunderstand Mike and ridicule him. It is unfortunately damn near human nature these days. A "skill" learned in childhood - make fun of someone else and the heat will be taken off of you and your own shortcomings. Is it mean? Unnecessary? Wrong? Sure. But it's happened before and it'll happen again to someone, many someones, and they'll live.

  2. Great post. As always, social "skills" are the match or mismatch between the interacting parties. In this case, there was clearly a mismatch.

    I also read Mike as a guy doing his best to figure out a complicated social interaction (and failing), rather than as an entitled, misogynist asshole. Unfortunately, most people think "person who struggles to understand social interactions" is essentially synonymous with "creep."

    I tend to find social awkwardness endearing, even when it results in stalker-like behavior. I generally don't relate well to people with lots of social grace and confidence, so somebody else's socially inappropriate behavior is like the secret handshake that puts me at ease. This is probably why I failed so spectacularly at Internet dating.

  3. "I also read Mike as a guy doing his best to figure out a complicated social interaction (and failing), rather than as an entitled, misogynist asshole."

    I'm pretty bad at this myself, but multiple attempts at communication with no results should trigger an escape clause of ending attempts at communication. That's where the entitled bit comes from. Instead of giving up at her clear signals of not wanting to talk to him, he writes the e-mail in question.

    Honestly, the only thing I see Lauren doing wrong (besides perhaps making this public--which may well be considered a PSA of sorts) is being polite. "It was nice to meet you," is inconclusive for a reason, because it would be rude to end a date with, "I never want to see you again." And maybe it really was nice to meet him--just not nice enough to warrant seeing him again. We also don't know the content of the previous attempts of contacting her, which may have influenced her into ignoring him when the date itself did not.

    Those of us on the spectrum value bluntness because subtlety flies right by us, but the average person is going to go with the usual social protocol of skirting the issue with polite but non-specific comments. She can't help if it he read more interest into her actions than was intended.

    Also, in another type of playing devil's advocate, while I've been rather fortunate to not face this, a LOT of women have had issues with guys who think that wanting to spend time with a woman overrides her desire to not spend time with them. This appears to be too common to write off as being just bad social graces, but rather an effect of cultural sexism (FFS, there are people who argue that sexual harassment should be taken as a compliment). And autistic or not, this same attitude may be at play here. Many, many people, on the spectrum or off, just don't take 'no' for an answer. The comment about the LW in this case isn't (just) about making fun of someone who perhaps has bad social skills, but is a way of combating this pervasive problem.

  4. But you see...she never did say no, and she or Mike is the source of this email; the implication from the Reddit posting is that it was she. There's an entire book that covers social algorithms for people who aren't quite sure what to do in such situations, whether autistic or not--the author is Emily Post.

  5. Bottom line is, I hate to see this kind of thing aired for the purposes of mockery in the public sphere, and I think some perspective taking is in order.

  6. She never said 'yes' either. There seems to be two types of people--those who takes absence of a 'yes' as 'no', and those who take an absence of 'no' as 'yes'. I find it's safer to tread the former path, but sadly there are plenty of people who tread the latter, even when they're well aware that the unspoken answer is 'no'.

    Um.....don't suppose you know the name of that book? I think a trip to the library is in order.


Comments for this blog are closed.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.