The Drama of the Disqualifying Statement
A relationship can end in an instant if you say the wrong thing.
In 1996, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a diary entry for Slate about his theory of “The Disqualifying Statement.” In a nutshell, a romantic relationship can end in an instant if someone says something the other person finds immediately disqualifying, even if the statement isn’t an objectively bad thing. Whether a statement is disqualifying is completely subjective, and therein lies the drama: because there is no objective standard, you never know when you might be the one to unwittingly end it with the love of your life. Dicey.
Gladwell gives a few examples to show just how subjective this all is: he was turned off by a gal at a dinner party who said that going to Brown was a rebellious thing to do; his friend started dating a hot trucker, but as soon as he got her shirt off and said “nice tits” it was over. Gladwell sums the concept up by explaining “for every romantic possibility, no matter how robust, there exists at least one equal and opposite sentence, phrase, or word (Brown!) capable of extinguishing it.”
Ever since reading this piece, I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon. (And full disclosure, I met Gladwell once or twice in my New York days and forced him to talk about the theory). Like him, I’m kind of a disqualifying statement hobbyist; I love analyzing whether a statement is a true disqualifying statement: is it subjective enough to be in the canon? Or is it objectively bad, and therefore not a true disqualifying statement? One of my favorites happened to a guy driving by the Smithsonian zoo with a date, who turned to him and said “I don’t think I could ever breed in captivity.” And just like that, it was over.
I’m sure I’ve said a few disqualifying statements myself over the years, but it’s hard to know. A first date can fail to lead to a second for so many reasons, and I’ve never been one to ask “is it something I said?” And I can only think of — or at least remember — a few times a man said a disqualifying statement to me, even after decades of dating. But there are a few I do remember:
- There was Ed, who made the mistake of telling me that if I ever wanted to be a in a “real” relationship, I would have to give up my horse and not let the…