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To Help People Fall in Love, Don't Do This

The Tyee
Shannon Rupp

This is not the Valentine's Day article I intended to write. As is so often the case in journalism, the idea that sparks a piece shifts radically with research, and you end up with something no one was expecting.

In this case, my desk was promised a piece on strangers who were willing to test the magic formula for falling in love. What my long-suffering editors received instead was a glimpse of my brief career as Madame Shannon: woefully inept matchmaker and lawsuit in-the-making.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This piece began when I decided to test the theory in a New York Times article, which you no doubt saw bouncing around the interwebs last month. The author, who teaches writing classes in Vancouver, talked about how she'd fallen in love after testing an 20-year-old psych experiment that promised to turn strangers into lovers by having them answer 36 increasingly intimate questions. The exchange was punctuated by staring into each other's eyes for four minutes.

The Internet went wild! So wild that author, Mandy Len Catron, was caught off guard according to a number of interviews she did.

But she shouldn't have been surprised. The promise of some fast-and-dirty means for Getting the Love You Want or finding a man by learningAll the Rules or seducing a woman by learning The Game has been a staple of the self-help crowd for decades, and this seems like just another variation on a theme.

Except that the Magic 36, as I've been calling the questions, come with a wrinkle: supposedly, you can make anyone you want fall in love with you if you can just persuade him or her to do the experiment.

It's the fantasy of every angsty teenage boy with a crush on a cool girl -- he could claim her if only he could get her to answer the mystical questions. I imagine high school reunions will have quite the air of anticipation this year as newly divorced 30-somethings armed with the Magic 36 seek out their first loves for a do-over.

Like much of the dodgy social psychology research that finds its way into pop psych paperbacks, this sounds like witchcraft to me. A kind of lovers' spell that would make Aphrodite proud. Or perhaps the kernel of a plot that could be turned into a middling rom-com.

But Catron claims the exercise turned her first date into a partnership, and I feel it would be churlish of me to ring her up and demand to interview the man involved and discuss the terms of their relationship in the name of good, objective journalism. (As my mother used to point out, there's a fine line between that and prying.)

Instead, I decided to do what science is supposed to do: replicate the experiment with some guinea pigs and see if I could arrive at the same intriguing outcome.

Trying out science

So that was my plan. Solicit a few willing participants from a range of ages and inclinations, and put them together randomly to try out the Magic 36. Then write about the results.

I put the word out among the sort of people who I thought might be open to baring their psyches in public. Naturally, I began with actors -- though I was surprised by how many eager volunteers came from everywhere, quickly revealing that I might be on the wrong track.

An office mate of an acquaintance had been moaning about the lack of eligible men in Vancouver and was up for the experiment. I took her details: age, sex and orientation. I envisioned myself a sort of random couples generator as I pulled names from a hat and paired them up for the romantic inquisition.

''But she wants to know if it's all right if she's not quite single,'' my acquaintance said. ''She's dating someone. But it's casual. And she's really not that interested in him.''

And why is she asking my permission? What am I: the Morality Police? I don't care if she's dating someone; I care if she's interested in being quoted.

But then I thought about it. Would it be fair to introduce semi-attached Susan to entirely single Sam, given that he may well have entered this experiment strings-free and hopeful?

Then a number of people I know who are in various forms of supposedly committed relationships said they'd be willing to give it a go, in the name of journalistic investigation. I was fairly reeling over the number of attached people who seemed unclear on the definition of ''faithful.''

''I'm a hedonist,'' one of them explained. ''I just couldn't resist the idea of trying it.''

Suddenly I was learning an awful lot of surprising things I would rather not have known about my acquaintances. Then one of my (thankfully, single) contacts said he'd be interested in playing.

''Do you know any redheads?'' he texted me.

''I'm not your pimp!'' I shot back, pointing out that it was not in the spirit of the thing if we catered to his particular eye candy.

Then I reconsidered. Jokes are often telling: I was kind of his pimp. Or, to be exact, I was his irresponsible matchmaker who had done no screening whatsoever before introducing a bunch of strangers and inviting them to fall in love with each other. For a story.

No money changed hands of course, but my Victorian soul was acutely aware that I was one very fine line away from becoming Madame Shannon.

Even worse I -- and by extension The Tyee -- was offering a sort of third-party endorsement of every participant, without having the faintest idea who any of them were. Well, not beyond knowing that they were very trusting souls. Or very predatory ones…

Suddenly I remembered an ethics lecture I'd endured in my youth from a cranky old drunk of an editor who preferred pragmatism to hoity-toity philosophical discussions.

''You know how you know when something is unethical?'' He said, “Imagine that what you're about to do is described in a 60-point front page banner headline.'' Here he paused for effect to let the horror of whatever stupid thing I'd proposed sink in: ''Then don't do it.''

Headlines flashed before my eyes: ''Valentine article leads to axe murder.'' ''Man claims Tyee story ended marriage.'' ''Woman leaves mate after love study.''

What the hell was I thinking? In that moment, my brief sojourn in the procuring business was over. Besides, I found a pair of Guardian writers who did the exercise, and to call their insights banal doesn't quite capture just how dull these first-person confessions are.

I promptly notified everyone that while I appreciated them being such good sports, I was calling off the scheme before somebody ended up as a hashtag.

Yet love finds a way

Still, my shenanigans sparked a little romance. One friend reported that a woman with whom he has a When Harry Met Sally relationship suggested they do the Magic 36 for my story. He was surprised -- he's known her for years. And he's not sure he's attracted to her, but in true Harry fashion he’s going to give it a whirl, even without the benefit of journalism.

Another acquaintance gave me a thoughtful analysis of the questions and also sent me what is quite possibly the most perfect answer to question 2. Complete this sentence: ''I wish I had someone with whom I could share …

... my complete aversion to even clicking on that line that leads me to these silly reminders of how little human civilization has evolved."

Yes, I realize not everyone would find that response utterly charming, but as my wise friend Anne points out, that may be the real secret of the Magic 36. Those questions have a way of sorting out such subtle things as who is amused by curmudgeonly men.

Anne, who has been married for more than 20 years, has a number of sharp observations about what makes relationships endure. She noted that the 36 questions don't just become increasingly intimate; the structure forces both parties to listen to the answers.

''That's the problem in most relationships: people don't pay attention to each other. They don't listen. In most cases people aren't listening to the other person, they're just waiting for a pause so they can say whatever they're thinking,'' Anne says.

While she doesn't think the Magic 36 is actually magic, she doesn't think it's as silly as I do. (What? You thought my little matchmaking experiment would have led to true love? Oh, how little you read me.)

Anne may have a point. In many ways, doing the questionnaire could be called ''anti-speed dating.'' Instead of making a snap judgment about someone based on their looks and a few seconds of small talk -- which turns everyone into little more than a commodity -- the Magic 36 forces you to see someone's humanity. Naturally you can't help but like people who have revealed themselves to you.

So, if I were the entrepreneurial type, this is where I'd be announcing my new business: Slow Dating. Where well-screened candidates who are in the ballpark of potential matches would meet and do the Magic 36 over three-hour-long evenings until some combination of charming answers and chemistry led to true love.

It's a fine idea, isn't it? And I hope someone with excellent liability insurance takes on the challenge, because Mme. Shannon is definitely out of the matchmaking biz. 

14 Feb 2015