I had originally planned to talk about information access and how it is going to change education, but that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow.  Just got home from a talk that got me thinking about affinities: the bonds created by some perceived similarity, whether in interest or personality or even appearance.

Not because of the content of the talk, which was about advertising research.  But because of the conversation after the talks, that terrible “networking” hour where people stand around and try to pretend that they don’t want something from each other.  Which turned out to be more interesting this time around.

Two of the speakers I felt strong affinities with.  One was an academic who started his own company and was emphasizing how things like focus groups and other explicit measures were less important than the nonconscious and behavioral measures that are truer predictors of subsequent behavior.  He was interested in similar things, we had some physical similarities (white, male, tall, slender, mode of dress), we are both scientists, etc.

The other I had only one affinity with: she currently worked in Oregon.  Other than that, we had seemingly very little in common – she was much more stylish than I am, more physically attractive, had spent significant time in places like LA, her company was less about science, etc.

Afterwards, I ended up in a conversation first with the scientist, then with both of them together.  I had intended to give only a brief cheer for Oregon to the woman and then spend the majority of the time with the gent, talking about the overlapping areas of what seemed like deeper interest.

And, because you are smart and know where this story goes, it turned out that I liked her considerably more than the gent and would have continued to talk to her almost endlessly, had time allowed.  And part of that is that it turned out that not only did the woman work in Oregon, she had grown up literally down the road from me in the middle of nowhere.  We were separated by enough time that we didn’t have people in common, but we did have places, attitudes, and other remembrances that we could share (to the apparent annoyance of the gent, despite attempts to include him).

On the walk home, this started me thinking about the unpredictable strength of certain kinds of affinities.  Take, for example, dating.  In dating, people are very willing to talk about the affinities that they want and they typically involve overlaps in current behaviors: liked TV and movie and books and music, types of food, hobbies, etc.  And yet when you look at what makes people enjoy spending time together, those sort of things are often non-overlapping.  Much more important turns out to be more base styles of communication and understanding that are more often produced by affinities like shared culture (including shared location).

Put more simply, it is significantly more likely that I will natively like someone who is from Oregon than someone who is also a scientist.  Or at least that is what research would suggest and certainly what came out in this conversation.

But why, then, are we so incredibly bad at picking up on the affinities that matter?  We tend towards the easily listed and quantified (“things with titles” seem to be omnipresent) and dramatically less on things that are more integral to our cultural ways of being.  Most dating sites, for example, would ask where you live, but not where you grew up.  What music you like, instead of what kind of family vacations you took as a kid.  We like to concentrate on our present selves but we don’t exist simply in this moment – we are very much an entire arc that isn’t even complete yet.

All this to say: I’m going to start asking where people grew up more often.  And, of course, I’m already looking at jobs back in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, so hopefully the answer will turn to be an affinity more often.