Off DeWall: What Relationship Do You Mean?

            Most of my posts and thoughts focus on relationships and, more broadly, social connections. I often treat social connections as these simplistic things that govern thought, emotion, and behavior. But social connections have many different flavors. Your relationship to your parents gives you something different than what you get from your best friend, your professors, or your local Starbucks barista. Each relationship partner also gets something different from you. In a keynote address by the eminent cultural psychology, Michael Harris Bond challenged me to think differently about how people relate to each other.

            Michael shoots out of any crowd in Asia. At a lean 6’5”, he towers over most people here. He has a bald, shiny head that emits a ray of light if the spotlight catches it at the correct angle. Just before he started speaking, he donned a white floppy hat (a la Gilligan’s Island). Maybe it’s his trademark.

            During his talk, Michael urged us social psychologists to consider how situations impact people differently according to the type of relationships they’re in. People behave differently when they’re with a single other person compared to when they’re around a bunch of other people. I buy that. When I’m around one person, I usually say and do things that I won’t do around a bunch of people.

            What’s missing, however, is which flavor of relationship we’re talking about. If I’m alone with a parent, how does that relationships change my behavior compared to when I’m with a bunch of professors (as all of the A&S Wired students will experience in a few short weeks)? And what happens to my behavior when that relationship changes? We shouldn’t think of relationships as static things; they swell, grow in intricacy, and can crumble over time.

            Or how about when we see groups of people as a single person? Social psychologists, who make their dough giving odd names to simple concepts, call this tendency entitativity. (You’re spell-check isn’t broken. That’s how you really spell that clunky word.) Under these circumstances, my behavior around a single person will mimic how I behave around a throng of people if I perceive that throng as a single person. For example, my behavior toward a Duke University basketball fan and a bunch of Duke University basketball fans might not differ much if I simply think of them as a single thing: rival.

            Where does this leave us? A lot closer to many more questions.