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April 17, 2012

Conflict of interests

Personal taste should not be the final arbiter of success when it comes to relationships.

“Look, she liked The Original Series more than The Next Generation. I mean, I get that Spock is a really great character, but she’s just objectively wrong. The Next Generation is clearly better. It’s not going to work out.”

It’s not going to work out. My friend—let’s call him “Jon”—offered me the above explanation as the reason why he couldn’t envision a future with the girl he was seeing. I wasn’t particularly surprised; this wasn’t the first time Jon had given me a bewildering rationale for why things “weren’t going to work out” between him and the prospect of the week, month, etc. Once, it was because “she didn’t like Bill Murray.” Another deal breaker? She hopped on the Arrested Development train recently, but talked about it as though she single-handedly saved the show from obscurity. Didn’t find that obscure ’90s sketch comedy he sent her funny? File her under “doubtful.”

Okay, so I’m probably not being completely fair to Jon. Whenever I point out how ridiculous these petty dismissals sound, he retorts that these smaller misalignments in interests are indicative of larger incongruities in their respective value sets.

Value sets? I’ll bite—for now. After all, on a pretty basic level, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that an individual’s personal taste in popular culture probably does signify the larger cultural and social milieus that she developed and emerged from. And I can’t say that I’m not guilty of the same kind of pop judgment. If someone professed an intense passion for Twilight to me, I mean, that’s kind of a red flag. In a less extreme scenario, it’s also true that I’d be far more inclined to date someone whose favorite novel is Pale Fire than someone who sleeps with a copy of Animal Farm by their side every night.

Today, many of our social decisions—both online and off—are predicated on these kinds of judgments. In real life, impulsive, cultural, capital-determined categorizations happen all the time. He’s wearing a Radiohead T-shirt. Probably a pretentious asshole. But at least when you’re face-to-face with someone, there’s the possibility of resisting some or all of the constructed implications of being, say, the “type of guy who wears Radiohead T-shirts.” Online, the importance of this capital is magnified tenfold, because all you’re given to work with is the construct—the curated version of a person. Who wouldn’t instinctually recoil if, after meeting someone in real life, you search for his or her Facebook profile and discover Nickelback listed under the music section? (Maybe it’s an ironic appreciation, you tell yourself.) On online dating sites, these interests play an even bigger role in our decision-making. How are you going to decide on which guy to respond to when your match percentages are all over 90 percent and they all kind of look vaguely similar? Easy—just take a gander at what they’ve filled out in their favorites section. That must be a good indicator of compatibility, you reason.

People have probably always obsessed over taste. Maybe 50 years ago, Rolling Stones fans decided they could never date Beatles fans. But I just can’t imagine that it mattered to the same degree that it does today, when everyone has access to an almost endless wealth of consumable content; when we’ve been conditioned by the Seinfelds and High Fidelitys of the pop culture canon to glorify the trivial. So what a person actually decides to seek out and, more importantly, enjoy in all that content seems like it’d be significant in some way.

Yet, at what point do minutiae cease to be meaningful and become, well, just plain minutiae? Does it really matter if we both love Arcade Fire? What if we have no overlapping musical preferences at all? I ask these questions because I’ve faced them time and again in the dating world. I’m not sure if I even know what’s important to me, and I’m worried that this intense preoccupation with having identical interests will only grow with the increasingly predominant role of social networking sites in forming and facilitating our relationships.

On the one hand, from personal experience, I don’t think that real-life chemistry can be determined by how well our tastes in various pop culture categories correspond. On the other hand, how is the relationship going to work in the long run if we can’t at least occasionally go to the same movies, watch the same shows and concerts, or talk about similar books? Is chemistry, divorced from shared interests, enough?

I guess, in the end, taste does matter to me—whether this concern with it is innate or cultivated or both—but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I just hope in the future that I’ll be discerning enough to know when it actually matters. And it will, sometimes, though I need to ask myself if I’m simply looking for some kind of superficial sign that it’s going to work out. Maybe then, I’ll be open-minded enough to not immediately write off a prospect when he tells me reading Atlas Shrugged changed his entire life outlook… but then again, maybe not.

Emily Wang is a second-year in the College majoring in English.

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