Well… Duh?! Pay Attention!

Whether it’s a new friend, a potential boyfriend/girlfriend, or someone you’re considering for marriage, you can learn everything you need to know about someone by taking them to Disneyland. (No, I haven’t been drinking, but thanks for asking.) Although it was probably not his intentions, Walt Disney has given the world the ideal sociological and relationship laboratory.

Disney theme parks give you the perfect opportunity to see how someone deals with virtually every important aspect of life. The prices give you insight into their ideas about money. The long lines show you their levels of patience. Their choices of activities give you insight into their sense of fun and adventure. The various attractions will show you how open they are to new experiences. The surroundings will show you how seriously they take themselves and their willingness to participate in silliness. Over the course of the day, they will tell you volumes about how they were raised and all of their childhood experiences because they will be surrounded by reminders. They’ll tell you things you would normally have to wait until couples counseling to hear. The kid-like nature of the park will give you a look at their ‘inner child’ and will give you big clues as to their issues and emotional baggage. “I can’t go on the Flying Dumbo ride, because one time, when I was six, my mom tortured me with a stuffed Dumbo while wearing a ringmaster costume and carrying a whip.” True, it may be less expensive to just go ahead and hire a private investigator, a hypnotist, a psychic and a psychiatrist, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun as a trip to Disneyland.

The key here, as it is anywhere, is to pay attention. People will always show you who they are and how they like to be treated if you pay attention. While it’s true that people will often tell you these things, self-descriptions are usually spun into the most flattering version of reality. (Don’t make that face. You know you’ve done it, and so have I.) Verbally, we tend to tell people our version of our best self, which may or may not be completely and objectively true. But, people don’t lie when they show you who they are. They can’t. Their actions, reactions, attitudes and choices reveal what their words can’t.

We have this tendency (and by ‘we’, of course I mean ‘I’, but saying ‘we’ makes me feel so much better about myself so, get over it), to mentally give new acquaintances, with or without romantic possibilities, positive and negative attributes that they don’t actually have. They might. But, how would we know? Others will only tell us what they want us to know. We’re only seeing what they are allowing us to see. We don’t know them very well yet so our minds get busy filling in the blanks with exactly what we wish to see. No one sees things, whether people or the world for that matter, as they really are. We see things through the lenses of our own hopes, fears, experiences and desires. That’s not a bad thing. It just is what it is. The sooner we can acknowledge that fact, the sooner our friendships have a chance of being grounded in reality instead of unfair and baseless assumptions that lead to countless disappointments.

This is not something we didn’t already know. We’ve been using this to our advantage since we first stepped onto the preschool playground and have been working it ever since, carefully perfecting our ‘story’ to show our best side. “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille. Does this anecdote make me look selfish?” Just think for a moment about the last casual conversation you had with someone you didn’t really know at a coffee shop. Your words might have been able to portray you as a laid-back, easy going, well rounded and fun-loving person. If they were paying attention beyond your words, however, and had seen you order a quad, grande, half decaf, light froth, skim, two-pump, vanilla, light-whip latte, and heard how you criticized the barista and saw that you didn’t even leave a tip, they would have learned something quite different.

Another big dividend of paying attention comes when we realize that people don’t change who they are. (Now, wait. Hold your arguments for just a few more sentences and let me explain that terribly offensive statement.) Who a person is, innately and intuitively, doesn’t change. But, as a person gains new information through experience, and learning new insights, their behaviors, choices and attitudes will be ever-changing. Their core nature remains intact, but how they deal with the outside world is in a constant state of change through trial and error. Personal growth is how the center of someone’s being learns to better get along in this world, and adds the information gleaned from new understandings to their choices, actions and reactions. I know that may seem like a very fine distinction (as my friend in Texas would say “Now you’re trying to separate the fly crap from the black pepper”), but I think it’s an important one. After all, they say Mussolini made a charming dinner guest and wrote a beautiful novel, but was a real S.O.B. at Disneyland.

It’s ok that it takes time to build a good relationship. Intimacy among friends and soul mates only comes through the sharing of experiences over time. There’s no short-cut to this. Well, except of course a trip to Disneyland. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

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