Playing the Intimacy Game with a Stranger

You’re alone in a friend’s parents’ home in suburban Florida with a girl you just met. It’s dark outside and there’s nothing to do nearby, yet you have 5 hours to kill before the 12 other girls arrive for bachelorette weekend. What to do you?

Our car ride together from the airport where she picked me up was fairly unremarkable. I learned she’s a dentist who works outside of Milwaukee, the older sister of my friend’s fiance. She was stressed from traffic woes and disappointed to have missed out on beach time earlier in the day. My brain space, which had been stuck on two concurrent flights that Friday afternoon, was distracted writing out to-do lists for the upcoming week. Her outfit, capris and a t-shirts, was much more casual than my own floor-length, multi-colored dress, and I worried that I had inadvertently packed a clothing style that was more “Miami,” than “West Palm Beach.”

As we arrived at our destination — a home tucked into a wooded and grassy alcove just off of a dirt road in Jupiter, Florida — it soon struck me quite hard just how far we were from the big city lights. Leaving our car parked on the front lawn (half-grass, half-sand), we dragged our bags into the front hallway and into our respective assigned zones. Me, claiming the curved half of the oversized, sectional couch in the living room. Her, sharing a bed with her sister in their daughter’s childhood bedroom. In the polite decoupling as we both got settled, absolute silence engulfed the house. Quiet. Not something I’m used to these days.

After the sun set, we awkwardly meandered through the rooms, eyeing the walls of family portraits of a group of people I hardly knew, with all of the forgotten elements of suburban life hitting me at once: the gym set up in the garage, the three refrigerators of stored meats, drinks, and frozen goods, the Post-It notes strewn about the kitchen and bathroom with helpful instructions on how to work certain quirky appliances. Childhood artwork still hung on the walls, and their screened-in porch not only held patio furniture but also an in-ground hot tub and yet another fridge. Fascinating.

Thankfully we he had one task to occupy us: Stuff bags of party favors for the 12 other girls who would be joining us and the bride-to-be. Throughout this activity, I made a game of assessing how we differed in our approach of tackling this basic assignment, noting to myself that the premium I put on efficiency meant little to nothing here. There was literally no timetable and nothing to do. When we finished, we looked at the clock. It was 7 p.m.

What to do with the next 5 hours?

The easy answer here is an obvious one: Watch Netflix or channel-flip for hours. Or even worse: Disappear into your own quiet corners of this foreign home and waste away in your own social media feed. But I wanted to opt for something a little more interesting.

“Alison*,” I began (*not her real name), “I have an idea and it’s a little weird so please feel free to say no. But, seeing as we have 5 hours to kill and that we don’t know each other at all, I wonder if there’s something else we could do to pass the time.”

“Okay, I’m listening,” she responded. “What do you have in mind?”

“Are you familiar with the Intimacy Test?”

The Intimacy Test, made popular by a 2005 Modern Love essay on “How to Fall in Love With Anyone,” is based on a psychological study of interpersonal closeness that set out to discover whether two strangers could feel more closely bonded after answer a series of questions designed to draw out personal information. At that point, I had played it exactly once before (with my husband after we got married), so I hadn’t really felt the full effects of learning provocative new information. But with Alison, a literal stranger, I wondered if she would be open enough to play, and furthermore, how this exercise would impact our relationship for the 72-hour marathon all-girls weekend.

Amazingly, she agreed. So we grabbed some food and a bottle of wine and decided to sit perched at the kitchen counter on bar stools while we ate and played this game.

Two questions in and I was already feeling uncomfortable in my personification of a “coastal tech elite.” I chose Elon Musk as my answer to question 1 (“Who in the world would you like as a dinner guest?”), then needed to awkwardly explain who he was. On the topic of whether you might want to be famous, something she very much shied away from, I sheepishly admitted that yes, this was maybe something I would find appealing. Off to a good start.

By question 4, I realized that we had answered each question in very opposite ways. No, I don’t rehearse what I’m going to say before I pick up the phone, I almost laughed. She paled and admitted in response, “I rehearse what I’ll say all the time.” Add another point to my “asshole” column. Her perfect day: Spent primarily in the good company of her husband or close friends. Mine, my comparison, would be one spent primarily by myself and include some blend of a workout, crossword puzzle, exploring a culturally artistic neighborhood, meeting some locals, and spending the afternoon and evening curled up with a cat, a book, and a glass of wine.

Things kept along in this fashion until we get to question 8, which asks you and your partner to each name 3 things you have in common. Let me tell you: This is a hilarious way to watch strangers interact. I just started smiling. By this point, it had become pretty clear that we didn’t share a lot of the “big stuff.” But, as polite and relatively normal humans, we each desperately wanted to avoid offend each other by appearing as if we couldn’t answer such a basic question. As a result, we defaulted to pretty benign options: That we both value friendships (clearly — that’s why we were on this trip!), love our husbands, and are open-minded enough to play this crazy game with each other. Phew.

I took a large swig of wine. This was getting interesting. Excellent.

About 20 minutes later, we finished set one, which in total took about 45 minutes.

“Do you want to keep going?” I asked. “We have two more sets to go. No pressure either way.”

“Let’s do it,” Alison said.

We refilled our glasses with wine and moved to the couch. I nerded out a little in noting the location change was already showing signals of our feeling a bit more close with each other.

The second set of questions, which focuses on goals, dreams, hopes, and fears, furthered in us both in bringing out our values and priorities. All of her answers seemed to focus on her close relationships in her life: With her husband, her mom, her sister, her friends (and even friendships that fell apart). Mine, on the other hand, felt a lot more career-focused, personally motivated, and about taking in as many unique experiences as my brain and budget would allow.

I was impressed how much time she dedicated to family and maybe a little jealous of what I perceived to be a less erratic day-to-day. She seemed to really respect the total seriousness and ambitious attitude I brought to my day-to-day. We both agreed that obviously we would change a lot about our lives if we knew we were going to die soon, which would include travel. I learned that she had never been out of the country, save for a trip to Mexico. I tried to cover up my shock at this statement and decided to downplay just how much time I’d spent on planes in the last year alone.

Question 22 was certainly the most intriguing to me from a psychological point of view: “Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.” To me, this felt not only like a memory challenge but also a test of speed and depth. Delay too much in responding and you might indicate that you don’t have anything positive to say. Answer too quickly and you risk jumping to a shallow, meaningless charade of a compliment. Failing to compliment her on one of her true personal values just shows a lack of awareness and an inability to listen. But I wasn’t about to let on to any of that. Obviously.

Thankfully Alison broke the awkwardness by calling out how weird this question was. “Yes!” I exclaimed. “It TOTALLY is. What a funny thing to say to someone you JUST met!” We bought ourselves two minutes by laughing it over. So far, so good. In the end, we maneuvered this as well as we could. I noticed that we each each pulled out our differentiating characteristics, then pivoted them into compliments. Ex: Her commitment to her friends and family and husband highlighted a deep level of compassion and empathy for others around her. We punted back and forth for some time, this question clearly causing each of us some amount of anxiety. “That’s 5 right?” she asked at one point. “I think so… sure!” I replied.

That was a lie. It was only 4. But who’s counting, anyway?

I noticed it had started to take longer and longer to answer each question. The family-focused questions (#23 and #24) was where we started to recognize some similarities in each other. Overall, pretty comparably positive upbringings. The mom-to-daughter dynamic is totally a thing. Go figure. We spent a good 20 minutes swapping wedding war stories.

That ended the second set of questions, and I again gave the option to opt out. But we were committed now.

We were out of wine so went back for more. This time, we decided, for convenience, to just leave the bottle out while chatting. We got a little comfier on the couch and did a time check. Another hour and a half to kill. Let’s go.

Here’s my over/under on the third set of questions: Take it or leave it. I felt like some of these questions were starting to feel repetitive and I found myself getting distracted in some of Alison’s longer answers by thinking up more provocative questions that could have been built into this test instead. That said, I’m still glad we completed them all.

Questions 23 and 27 ask you and your partner to describe what you are feeling and then share what other personal information you’d like them to know about them before becoming a close friend. I took the opportunity to warn her that I would likely be the exact kind of friend she had previously told me she didn’t like — kind of flakey. “Honestly, my schedule and means I’m all over the place, all the time, which means that I’m not always super reliable or dependable as like, ‘that friend who’s always there for you.’ I’m also terrible at my personal email and I’m trying to get off Facebook so it’ll be hard for me to stay in touch regularly.” She looked at me as if to say, “Are you serious right now?” But I was. And just had to get it out there.

Question 28: Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.

“I feel like we just answered this,” Alison said. “Didn’t we just answer this one? I mean, it’s not like I don’t want to answer it, but I feel like we just did this.”

“Yes, you’re right, I agree.”

So we skipped it.

We also skipped question 31, which was essentially the same thing. Hooray, teamwork.

Somewhere in between questions 32–34, someone cried. I won’t say who. But it was a really great moment in understanding and empathizing with each other during a tough moment. I checked this off as another positive indication that this test was working.

The very last question is to share a personal problem and ask your partner for advice on how they would handle it. Alison thought this was a little bit weak as a last question. I didn’t comment much to that point, but mostly because I saw this as an excellent opportunity to practice some of those coaching skills we had learned in a management training course I attended that week. In the end, I felt like we definitely came away with a few action items.

And that was the end. No, we did not do the part where we stared into each other’s eyes for two minutes. (After all, this was an intimacy test of friendship for us, not love.)

It was 30 minutes to midnight. Time to get ready for the rest of the party to arrive. I realized that we needed to prepare for a serious uptick in energy level and noise and overall frivolity in the house, so we turned on more lights and decided to pick a few songs to queue up on their kitchen iPod (that’s right, iPod).

I was very curious to see how this activity would impact the rest of our weekend.

When the doors opened and everyone poured it, I felt instantly pulled toward the heightened energy level, which Alison stood back and took it all in. While I had recognized my relative closeness in knowing 11 of the 12 girls after 4 years college years together, the impact of Alison’s relatively anonymity to the group — as the sister of the bride-to-be’s brother — hit me with severity. Even though I had left Chicago and had felt more generally removed from that boisterous group, I had the luxury and ease of being able to drop back into a familial friendship vibe, whereas Alison did not.

I decided to leverage my social standing among the majority by calling out loudly and awkwardly some of the cool things I learned about Alison. We then revealed our evening’s activities and cracked into a few “inside joke” giggles while regaling them all of the tale. It was cute. You had to be there. I realized that I was feeling a little protective of my new friend and wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be cast aside by my peers. At that, I smiled.

The rest of the weekend was, as to be expected, action-packed, crazy, and undeniably exhausting. It involved both an ostrich and a party bus — and that’s all I’ll say about that.

By the end of our 72-hour bachelorette bonanza, I realized that, were it not for that large block of time spent together, I realistically would not have taken the time to truly connect with Alison in a way that would give me a sense of her value set and point of view.

Thanks to a five-hour chunk of time and a willing partner, I picked up a better understanding of the world through someone else’s eyes. No, we’re not going to become best friends, but that’s not really the point.

It was an exercise in empathy. I’d encourage you to give it a try sometime.

Written by

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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