Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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The tall dancer phenomenon

The phenomenon

One of the key ideas I pondered during my sabbatical was the ”tall dancer” phenomenon: People who are “different” (in one sense or other, in a variety of contexts) are often perceived as inferior through incompatibilities rather than deficiencies—in fact, this is often the case even when they are rationally speaking superior.

Consider the following situation: A dance class (or some other dance setting) has one unusually tall participant, with the rest being unusually short (assume e.g. a two foot difference in height); all participants have roughly the same skill and experience. The class pairs up and the tall dancer and his partner finds that dancing with each other is awkward. If they are bright enough, they realize that the difference in height is the problem; if not, they consider the other party an incompetent dancer. A re-pairing is made for the next dance, and the same thing happens again. This continues until everyone has danced with every member of the opposite sex.

At the end, many of the short dancers will be convinced that the tall dancer was incompetent—after all, dancing with everyone else was no problem. The tall dancer, in turn and depending on the exact circumstances, may be convinced that everyone around him is incompetent, may have realized that the height difference causes a compatibility issue, or he may incorrectly have started to doubt his own ability.

The interesting issue: If the circumstances where the reverse (one short dancer, and many tall) then it would be the short dancer who was considered incompetent. I cannot stress the importance and benefits of this realization in the majority enough—although I do not count on its appearance anytime soon.


On the contrary, it is very common to read claims (concerning e.g. social skills) that one group of people are simply born with a certain skillset (say, empathy, “knowing how to handle people”, charisma), while another group is not—and that the members of the latter are only able to “compensate” by hard work or not at all. This is usually due to the kind misapprehension this article discusses: The respective groups are just tuned in to be compatible with people of the same group, one group is significantly larger, and the members of that group ignorantly or self-gratifyingly consider the members of the other group deficient—without realizing that the tables would turn, where the proportions reversed.

In the particular case of dancers, the height issue is sufficiently obvious that most will come to the right conclusion; however, in a generic situation this will not be the case: The height difference is visible; a difference in e.g. personality type, cultural background, experience level, ..., will typically not be visible. In fact, often the reverse can happen, and an obvious, but irrelevant, difference be attributed instead of the true, underlying reason. (Consider e.g. the ascription of cultural differences to race.)

Contributing factors

The phenomenon comes into being by a mixture of (at least) two factors:

  1. People (including those who are rational and intelligent) tend to make judgments based on their own positions, experiences, and opinions. Especially, they tend to assume that others think and feel in a similar manner, have similar priorities and needs, ... It is also common for people to (re-)interpret events and circumstances so that they, themselves, “look good”.

  2. The majority rules. In some cases this must be altered to e.g. “the faction that makes the most noise (or similar) rules”, making things even harder for groups like introverts (who tend not to make much noise) and rational people (who try to resolve problems, instead of complaining about them to others). Other complications include e.g. ability to garner sympathy and access to printing media.


One of the most obvious examples is a single man in a group of women, respectively a single woman in a group of men—including cases where the group discusses an individual without his presence, and where a small group is contained in a larger group.

Other easy to understand cases include differences in age, level of education, cultural norms, etc. Even so simple things as table manners can vary greatly from one culture to another: Consider burping in various cultures, or even knife-and-fork use in the US vs. England—what is perfectly acceptable, or even preferred, in one context can be rudeness in another, and vice versa. (An interesting case in pointw.) A common trap is customs and procedures local to different organisations: Often a new-comer to stumble because his new employer simply does certain things in another manner compared to the old employer—and being in a one-man minority, it is he who will lose out.

Often overlooked, but highly important examples, include introverted vs. extraverted, rational vs. emotional, people who can learn on their own vs people who need instruction, etc. (Notably, in these examples, a strong case can be made for the former being superior; while the latter are in a majority and usually, incorrectly, considered superior in the “accepted wisdom”.)

We are all perpetrators

It is noteworthy that an individual can go from perpetrator to victim (and vice versa) in matter of minutes, just by landing in a new group. Further, that more or less everyone will be on both the receiving and the giving end every know and then.

Different priorities and perception


Many people consider certain minority groups victims of a disorder, deficient in some regard, or down-right “freaky”, without reflecting on other possibilities—while the minority group is severely annoyed over this attitude, and often considers the majority the ones to have lost out.

Introverts and extraverts

Consider e.g. the introverts vs. extraverts issue: It is quite common for extraverts (although I am not certain that it applies most of them) to see introverts as people who are unhappy, unable to find friends, or in need of help to have an active social life. Introverts typically have a very different take: “Why spend Friday evening getting drunk on over-expensive liquor in an over-crowded and overly loud bar? Besides, the last Stargate season was just released on DVD.” An educating take on Autismw can be found on http://isnt.autistics.org/e, which makes a similar point very well—and also illustrates many of the problems the “NT” majority brings to this world. (I am reasonable well-read in issues relating to autism and Aspergerw, and can vouch that the opinions presented on the above website are very common among the “sufferers”.)

Jocks vs. neirds

Another good example is “jocks” vs “neirds” and similar interest based divisions. I can, for instance, recall how my grandmother complained about me “always having my nose in a book” when I was a child—as if I were somehow doing something wrong or even pathological. I, in turn, have troubles comprehending how she can go through her entire life without reading anything more than the (local low-quality) morning paper and her weekly “house-wife magazine”.

Similarly, I have again and again seen warnings against people spending to much time on the Internet (with computers, or similar)—this despite the great benefits in both education and entertainment the Internet can bring. I do not deny that there is a too much, that some users gain no greater benefit than from a daily soap, or that some people have an actual pathologic addiction; however, typically everyone who does not adhere to the traditional “all free time must be spent with other people, else something is wrong” are labeled off as Internet addicts in a blanket manner. It is not wrong for a teenager to spend more time on the Internet than with his friends; getting hysterical over it, like some hyper-extroverted people do, is entirely out of line—and tells me more over their problems and limitations than their children’s.

To have a wife or a mistress/Priorities

The following joke is a good illustration on how different people can have very different priorities.

A doctor, a lawyer and a mathematician were discussing the relative merits of having a wife or a mistress.

The lawyer says: "For sure a mistress is better. If you have a wife and want a divorce, it causes all sorts of legal problems.

The doctor says: "It’s better to have a wife because the sense of security lowers your stress and is good for your health.

The mathematician says: " You’re both wrong. It’s best to have both so that when the wife thinks you’re with the mistress and the mistress thinks you’re with your wife — you can do some mathematics.


Illustration using the Addams family

A very striking, if fictional, example of how this can work is the Addams familyw: On the one hand, they are considered complete and utter freaks by most “normal” people; on the other, they are extremely happy, get along with each in an extraordinary manner, and, at least, Gomes is a great idealist and a sometimes philantropist (in his own way). Off the top of my head, I can think of no other family, be it in real life or fiction, which is so loving and internally well-adjusted. Certainly, from their POV, it is the rest of the world which is turned on its head.

Compare this to the eternal inner strife and family problems on Bewitchedw, or the volatile (and often near lethal) relationship of Jeanniew and Major Nelson (to mention two niche competitors). How about the apparent American dream family in American Beautyw, which was, in fact, an American nightmare? Even the supposedly ideal family of the Huxtablesw looks malfunctioning in comparison to the Addams family.

Emotional intelligence

An interesting special case is emotional intelligencew, in particular in its more populistic and commercial variations: There is much good to be said about e.g. knowing and understanding ones own emotions, the emotions of others, whatnot; however, EI and EQ tends to be distorted into having empathy, having a behaviour conformant to the majority, etc. In effect, a high EQ score is often awarded, or a high EI ascribed, because someone happens to be of the “right” size for a particular dance group—not because of actual skill. I note that the people I have know personally who have been esteemed in this regard have often, IMO, lacked in central skills, like maturity, impartiality, ability to handle own emotions, resistance to emotional manipulation by others, ...


From my own readings, I have a very strong impression that even Golemanw, himself, has been more interested in selling books and seminars than in actually constructing and spreading a valuable theory.

A particular danger here: The promotion of EQ can cause a vicious circle or self-fulfilling prophecy, where a certain “height” is made the golden standard for no other reason that it is the most common, that ability to “dance” is measured (directly or indirectly) to include conformance to that height, that non-conformants are considered poor dancers, and that EQ seems to be validated—causing it too influence evaluations even heavier, ... Notably, Goleman’s own writings contain the circular argument that because people with high EQs tend to do well in their careers, companies should deliberately strive to promote people with high EQs—completely ignoring that the ability get a promotion to a position is not the same as ability to do a good job in that position, but often has only a weak or even negative correlation with it. This is made worse by his tendency to reason in reverse, by not defining EI/EQ and see were it leads, but to grab factors that have a positive career effect and define EQ to be the sum of those factors.


I have later repeatedly seen claims that EQ tests effectively test for extroversion or a particular personality type. This amounts to begging the question in the manner described above. Cf. e.g. http://intjforum.com/showthread.php?t=20320e.

Other types of disadvantages for those different

Apart from the direct problems with perception, there are also many cases were implicit assumptions of how this or that should be done, what is “normal”, or similar, cause problems. Obviously, if someone points out that he has a different opinion, he risks the full problems of a tall dancer, but is unlikely to receive any benefits. To illustrate how narrow-minded and idiotic people can be: A previous landlord of mine noticed that I used what he had intended as the living room as bed room, and intended bed room as living room, became visibly angered, and explicitly complained about my arrangements! The sheer presumptiousness...

To take a specific example of how this can affect the non-conformants, and how society as a whole may suffer a disadvantage:

A more or less Germany-wide problem, in my experiences so far, is that people are assumed to be at sleep under heavy, thick comforters during the night (be it in mid-summer or mid-winter)—and that even in mid-winter, even on the rare nights where the temperature goes down towards -10 C, the central heating is turned off for a sizable part of the night. Needless to say, for someone like me, who do not care much about night and day, but more about what I currently am doing, this is an actual problem, because (at least when not working for someone else) a significant part of my waking hours tend to fall in the night-time. Right now (a few nights before Christmas 2009) my apartment is at least nippy, and my hands are decidedly cold—if I had not closed off the hallway, with its poorly insulated door to an icy stairwell, the temperature would have been intolerably low.

Even when I sleep during the night, this is far from optimal: If I use a comforter, without first manually turning all the radiators off, I am uncomfortably warm and sweaty until the central heating is turned off; if I use the thinner sheets that I am used to, I risk waking up in the middle of the night from being too chilly—or can wake up with a cold in the morning.

Notably, the comformants also have disadvantages, most notably by waking up to a cold bed room, bath room, and kitchen, which certainly makes the mornings before work less appealing. Further, in days of fewer house-wifes, the central heating is now happily burning everyones money during the day—while most apartments stand empty...

Compromises and work-arounds can be found over time; however, these are by necessity sub-optimal. Assume, instead, that tradition and presuppositions were thrown out, and the tenants allowed to decide for themselves: The central heating is on during the night, those tenants who want the temperature to drop through-out the night can turn the heating off manually, those who prefer an even and comfortable temperature do nothing. (I suspect that within one generation, the latter would be in a very clear majority, and the comforter industry in a crisis...)

Similar statements apply to more or less everything, if one looks sufficiently deeply beneath the surface: If a majority (often even a plurality) has a certain preference, shows a certain behaviour, adheres to a certain custom, then those who deviate will experience disadvantages of various kinds and severities: There are many people who do not always sleep during the night, for a variety of reasons, e.g that they have an unusual work schedule; there are many people who are blind; there are many people who are allergic to fish; there are many people who have their moods ruined after being force-fed twenty minutes of third-rate music in a store, no matter how popular it is with teenage girls; ...


  1. Be aware of the possibility of differences of this kind, and make judgments based on rational criteria—not “the majority rules”.

  2. If you realize that you are a victim, do not be content with blaming the other party. Even if its members are capital idiots (which may or may not be the case), doing so will accomplish nothing. Instead try to adapt: A tall dancer who is aware that height is an issue can learn to compensate. (Which is not to say that one should fold over and accept any kind of idiocy; however, taking too firm a stand will often lead to an uprootinge. Beware that the stronger the idiocy, the stronger the wind.)

  3. Communicating that a tall dancer situation is underway can be a good idea with sufficiently open minded people; however, most people are not open minded, and I suspect a high risk of backfire: “Not only is he incompetent, but he makes excuses too.”

  4. Conversely, if you detect someone else in a tall dancer situation, there is a good chance that approaching him would help. Many of them are ignorant of the problem, or puzzled by the behaviours of others. A few friendly pointers can help them; and many of them will be willing to try to adapt, should this be necessary.

  5. Try to detect situations where you continually land in a tall dancer position. In my case, e.g., examples include introverts vs. extroverts, highly intelligent people vs. people of average intelligence, people interested in content vs. people fascinated by covers, long-term thinkers vs. here-and-now people, communicators vs bonders/small talkers, ...

  6. Be wary of changes in groups. Many of my problems at E4, e.g., were founded in a three-fold change of settings: Up till then, female colleagues had been rare (possibly 10 %, not counting receptionists and similar); most colleagues had a background in computer science, math, physics, or another hard subject; and the competence level at my previous employer had been unusually high. At E4, OTOH, I spent more than half my “interaction time” dealing with women; almost everyone I dealt with had a background in business; and competence levels were abysmal.

  7. Think of different groups (e.g. introverts/extroverts, engineers/business people, men/women) in the same way as e.g. British/Germans or Canadians/Japanese (or similar): There is a plethora of guides to help with business dealings with foreigners, including customs, etiquette, whatnot—the lack of similar books for different groups within the same country severely understates the differences.