You can’t die of embarrassment; but you can get dangerously close.

Last summer, at my brother’s 4th of July cookout, I noticed that Jill, an acquaintance of mine I had met a few years earlier, was struggling with the same problem as I was– attempting to pull the steak meat off her shish kebob without impaling herself in the process. I struck up a conversation, and we just talked and talked and talked. We spoke of food (she is proud vegetarian, I am a struggling one), gardens (I am an obsessive gardener, her dad owned a landscape company), and without sounding too weird–we really connected. And we did so effortlessly, which is really rare for me.

A Rough Evening

As I get older, cultivating new friendships is just more difficult. I used to love making small talk and meeting new people, but somewhere along the line I must have lost that gift, because now making new friends just seems like work. And I just don’t usually think it’s worth the effort. But Jill asked if I wanted to go to dinner sometime! Yea! A “date!”

A few months passed, and I was a bit surprised to receive a text message out of the blue from Linda, an old friend whom I had slowly drifted away from over the last 10 years. I was excited to hear from her, and was looking forward to catching up.

We met for dinner at one of those “too hip” restaurants where the lighting is dark and the couples sit too close together. When she arrived, I thought she looked quite differently from how I remembered her. I mentioned how tall she was and she giggled and pointed to her stiletto boots.

I asked about her job—was she still working in contracts? Nope, she moved out of that a few years ago. How was the house? Great, always a work in progress. All was good. We talked of my brothers and friends we had in common. We laughed because neither of us could read the menu without putting on our “helpers” and getting out our cell phone flashlights. An hour flew by as we ate our food (squinting in the dark to identify it) and gulped down our margaritas.

Then the conversation became uncomfortable. After the second margarita, she started talking about Ed, Jill’s husband. Ed, Ed, Ed. I tried to deviate a little, even dropping her husband’s name a few times, but all conversational roads led right back to Ed. Ed was wonderful, Ed was funny, Ed and I went here, Ed and I went there…I couldn’t believe it! The only plausible explanation was that she was having an affair with Ed.

What do I do? Tell Jill, whom I just barely knew? It’s none of my business, anyway. But wouldn’t I want to know? Maybe Linda was in one of those funky “open” marriages, and her hubby is ok with the situation. Do those people even exist? And how can I meet them? One thing was for sure– I needed another margarita.

I asked Linda about her kids (and yes, it was incredibly odd she hadn’t mentioned them once during the entire evening) just to change the topic from the “Almighty Ed.” And her response stunned me:

“I don’t have kids.”
I was in no mood for games. “Yes, you do. You have two kids: Molly and Jacob.”
“I don’t have any children.”
“Cut it out. You do.”
“I think I would know if I had kids. I’m telling you, I don’t have kids.” It was her turn to get testy.

Then it hit me like a sledgehammer to the stomach.

This wasn’t Linda… this was Jill.

The waitresses, bartenders, and customers began to move in slow-motion. The surrounding sounds became muffled and distant. I glanced across the table, and stared through a telescope at a stunned Linda. My field of vision was closing in on all sides. I started to feel dizzy. I was close to passing out.

I had spent an hour and a half with Jill, whom I was positive was Linda.

I came clean, almost crying with embarrassment. Jill was gracious and kind; more confused than angry. And I think she felt sorry for the moron sitting across the table.

Am I an idiot? Maybe a little. But a more accurate (and gentler to my fragile ego) explanation is that I am a classic case study of cognitive bias; more specifically I showed clear signs of anchoring, attentional, and confirmation biases. In my hurry to make sense of what was happening, I chose to ignore certain facts, and instead clung to the weakest of explanations.

I was a perfect example of how NOT to make decisions. And just like everyone else (I thought I was special!), I am at the mercy of my imperfect brain.

Let’s get a few things cleared up:

1. Linda and Jill resemble each other. I mean REALLY resemble each other. Same smile, same mannerisms, same age.

2. In my cell phone, I had flip-flopped their names and phone numbers, attaching Linda’s cell phone # to Jill’s name, and attached Jill’s name to Linda’s number. And neither one had texted or called me until Jill texted me about dinner.

These two little pieces of info were enough to set me on my path to a terrible case of mistaken identity.

Earlier in the evening, I had my doubts, but it didn’t take much for me to conveniently discount all facts that didn’t match up with the first piece of information I had—namely the text invitation that I firmly, unflinchingly, irrefutably believed came from Linda. Anchoring bias.

Linda seemed much taller than I remembered—then she showed me her high heels. Linda’s hair was a completely different color than I remember—but it had been 10 years. These tissue-paper-thin explanations were enough for me to ignore these two obvious salient facts that told me that this wasn’t Linda. I clung to the justifications and ignored the facts. Attention bias.

To finally stifle that little nagging voice of doubt, I asked Linda if she was still working in contracts. She told me she left that job years ago,  (That was a particularly unlucky answer for me, since Jill worked in contracts too). Confirmation bias.

Except for the fact that Jill never called me again, and it looks like what could have been a nice little friendship was cut off at the knees, no permanent damage was done. I will give Jill a friendly little text now that a year has passed.

Then again, maybe texting isn’t such a good idea, considering my history.

Maybe I will text Linda.