Monday, December 29, 2008

surprises and expectations

Here, in its entirety, is a story from Reuters:

”What are you doing here?”: man asks wife in brothel

WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish man got the shock of his life when he visited a brothel and spotted his wife among the establishment's employees.

Polish tabloid Super Express said the woman had been making some extra money on the side while telling her husband she worked at a store in a nearby town.

"I was dumfounded. I thought I was dreaming," the husband told the newspaper on Wednesday.

The couple, married for 14 years, are now divorcing, the newspaper reported.

Here’s what I want to know: was the woman surprised to see her husband in the brothel? And why doesn’t the article address that question?

Advanced primates that we may be, we’re still wired to notice the unusual or unexpected. What seems to be unusual or unexpected here (both to the man and to us) is that someone’s wife happened to be working in a brothel. It is not unusual or unexpected that someone’s husband happened to be frequenting a brothel. The man’s behavior is (relatively) normal; the woman’s is not.

Can you imagine this article having been written from the other perspective: ‘brothel employee surprised to see husband as client’? I don’t think we’ll ever see such an article. It’s too hard for us (and for the reporter, our proxy) to identify with this abnormal creature, the brothel employee who is also a wife. But we recognize familiarity in the brothel customer who is also a husband. It’s not that we’re necessarily any more similar to him. It’s just that we’re used to him. And so the story gets told from his angle.

There’s an interesting reinforcing mechanism at work here. The story treats the wife’s presence at the brothel as the surprising factor, because it is the part of the story that surprises us. And it surprises us because of articles like this.

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