I like to talk about the Fundamental Attribution Error, because after you explain what it means, everyone has a good story.

Take the workshop I taught this week, for example.  I explained the FAE theory (which states that we tend to attribute our own actions to situational factors, but we attribute the actions of others to their intentions) and someone said, “That really explains most cases of road rage.”  How true.  If I cut someone off in traffic, I usually have a reason and it has to do with the situation.  I was avoiding a squirrel in the road, or I was about to miss a turn, or perhaps I simply didn’t see the other guy.  But the other guy, meanwhile, is convinced that I am just a @#@#!  And he may tell me so, through a certain gesture or two.

What I was thinking about today is how the FAE tends to apply in situations involving gender differences in communication.  One of my pet peeves is men who think I’m asking for advice when I’m not.  In a paternal, perhaps even patronizing tone, they begin to bestow their great wisdom and experience upon me when all I was trying to do was make conversation by telling them about something I’m working on, or maybe something I’m doing for fun.  My immediate reaction is usually that the guy’s intentions are bad.  Because I’m a woman, he assumes that he knows more than I do and I must be asking for help.

Might it really be that I’ve been sending mixed messages to this particular colleague or friend for many years, and so he perceives this as a situation similar to a previous one?  Maybe I asked him how to change a tire last week, or I begged for his help with a particularly thorny computer problem.

I’d like to think so, anyway.  Because if it’s really matter of me sending mixed messages, than I can do something about it.  That’s the beauty of the FAE; it takes problems out of the realm of someone else’s control and puts them under our own control.

Got a good story of your own?

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