Puritan Coffee and Beer on Dickson Street was filled to capacity, and I had no backup plan. I was not 10 minutes early as I had originally intended, nor was I entirely sure my hair was completely dry. But there I was, armed with a thriving sense of skepticism and my favorite jacket, ready to find love, or at least an interesting story from meeting someone new.
In the era of instant gratification, we expect quick results for everything, even falling in love. With dating apps and late-night direct messages setting the bar for romance, the only thing missing is genuine intimacy. But as any rom-com will tell you, intimacy takes time and commitment — unless it doesn’t.
In a 1997 study, psychologist Arthur Aron from University of New York at Stony Brook developed 36 questions that aim to create a sense of intimacy between any two people over the course of afternoon coffee. Social media platforms market these questions as a foolproof mechanism for falling in love, but it should be noted that the original study promised no such thing.
Aron theorized that by asking three sets of questions of an increasingly personal nature, two strangers could form a connection akin to that between friends who have known each other for years. So, there I was, in the crowded coffee shop, about to divulge my most personal fears and goals to a complete stranger.
I walked in, barely on time, to meet Tony Dutton, a music education major. I’m not one for preamble, so we dove right in to the 36 questions. The first few were simple enough: If you could have dinner with anyone, who would your pick be? What do you feel most grateful for? Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
The second set of questions turned the pressure up a bit. They pertained to bad memories, and dreams or secret ambitions. The questions also required that we tell each other something we liked about the other person. This turned out to be key to the whole method.
At several points during the process, Tony and I discussed, as per our instructions, what we considered were other person’s most positive attributes. Interestingly, the longer we talked, the more thoughtful and personal the compliments became. As we learned each other’s life stories, I found myself developing a genuine respect for the stranger sitting across from me. We had much more in common than I anticipated.
Going over the questions later, I noticed that none of them focused on anything negative. While this is certainly reasonable, I realized it was also a testament to the contrived nature of the experiment.
The questions were intentional about fostering positivity exclusively. To be fair, I did feel like I had known Tony for much longer than three hours, but true intimacy goes beyond sharing personal details. Further intimacy requires mutual growth, which can sometimes require focusing on the negative rather than positive aspects of an individual.
Here’s the skinny — while these 36 questions might be a great starting point, they can’t reasonably guarantee a soulmate, and I don’t think that was ever their purpose. I had a meaningful and encouraging conversation with a complete stranger, and as I drove home, I felt less alone.
At one point, Tony brought up the cultural pressure to be in a relationship and how people are often not viewed as successful or even happy unless they have a significant other, which is something I have noticed as well.
I’ve frequently spoken to friends about how I feel comfortable, even empowered, as someone who is single most of the time, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an opposing ideology that dominates our cultural landscape. Learning to live outside of that is hard and can feel isolating. But talking to another person who felt the same way reaffirmed me in my feeling that there is nothing wrong with being happy with yourself and just yourself.
As Aron predicted, these questions do seem to forge a connection between two people. Divulging my insecurities, fears and painful memories was much more nerve-wracking than I expected. Being at the mercy of these 36 questions took gumption, and I think that was by design. We were both nervous, and no matter which questions were posed by Aron’s study, we both had to answer. We were in it together. For me, this also fostered a sense of trust. I was free to talk about intensely personal topics because he was too.
There was a part of me that felt the conversation opened up romantic potential, but I also think that romanticizing any kind of connection is encouraged in a culture where your relationship status is reflective of your personal worth. In our lovesick society, we are quick to turn the smallest flicker into a romantic flame, but that isn’t always the case.
By getting to know Tony in a setting like this, I found myself becoming friends with someone I did not expect to have much in common with. And with so much threatening to divide our society, we could all use a little more of that.