You’re meeting someone new for dinner, and you’re doing your best to prepare for what you hope will be a favorable outcome. You’d like to impress this person in the best way you can, so you start getting ready several days in advance. Now the hour has finally arrived. Your hair is done, the new clothes are ready to wear, and you feel that nothing can go wrong. This might be a face-to-face meeting with an online dating partner, a business affair, or a gathering of new neighbors. In any case, you’re sure that you’re on your way to making a great first impression.
Research on impression management established years ago the maxim that you’ve got approximately 15 seconds to show off your good side to someone new. People form judgments, whether correct or not, within that brief interval, and anything you do to change that conclusion will be tough indeed. When you’re in control of the situation, it’s a bit easier to control the outcome. You can place yourself in as flattering a light as possible by showing that you’re poised and self-confident (but not too self-confident). You don’t have to worry about tripping over a step if you’re already seated, and you can arrange yourself so that you appear as attractive as possible if you’ve been able to check out your hair and touch up anything on your face that needs touching up.
In a situation such as a meal, however, anything can happen. You can spill your drink, get food stuck between your teeth or on your face, or fail to use your knife and fork in the most polite way possible. You can eat too much or too little. What you may not realize, though, is that your approach to ordering or accepting the host’s offer of a lovely meal may lead you to appear to be a picky eater. New research shows that you affect the impression you make on others during a meal if you have a dietary restriction involving gluten. It may seem perfectly legitimate that, if your health requires that you avoid anything containing gluten, your dining partners will understand. You might not even think twice about telling the restaurant server or the dinner party host that you would like a gluten-free option. However, the status of being unable to eat foods containing gluten may affect that all-important first impression you’re trying to make.
According to Western Connecticut State University’s Maya Aloni and colleagues (2019), “the sharing of a meal is a common and well-scripted dating activity… (and) what people consume can have important implications for the impression they convey to their partner” (p. 55). There are, they note, “consumption stereotypes,” or preconceived ideas that people have about others based on the foods they eat. Would, they wondered, the gluten-free individual fall prey to one of those stereotypes?
People have a variety of food- and drink-related allergies or sensitivities. You may have to avoid lactose, alcohol, red meat, eggs, shellfish, or you may draw the line at anything involving kale. When you’re with people who know you well, your intolerance is less likely to create a problem. The first time you’re having a meal with someone, though, it’s necessary for you to offer an explanation when you say you can’t eat whatever it is that your condition requires. On top of all the other situations that can go south at a first meal, this only complicates the situation.
Aloni and her fellow researchers believe that being unable to tolerate gluten has its own special challenges. Although the percentage of the population that has the diagnosis of Celiac Disease (which demands being gluten-free) has remained stable over the past decade, the percentage of people who follow the gluten-free diet has tripled to about 9 million adults in the U.S alone. Ironically, if you don’t need to restrict your gluten intake but do so anyway, you might actually impair your health. What’s worse from an impression-management point of view you might also be limiting your romantic partner options.
The Western Connecticut State authors observe that there are pluses and minuses to letting others know about your dietary restrictions. On the one hand, because a gluten-free diet is one of the latest health-food fads, you’ll seem to be a good potential partner because you are so health-conscious. On the other hand, there’s that downside to seeming picky and self-centered. The authors note that people who, for example, stick to low-fat diets seem to be “less happy, less fun, more boring and high-strung” than people who don’t give a second thought to counting calories and watching their cholesterol levels. Furthermore, as the authors note, “Someone who is picky with food choices might be seen as someone who would be high-maintenance in other aspects of their life” (p. 56). And then finally, taking into account gender stereotypes, the gluten-free man should be at particularly high risk for looking not just picky, but too “feminine.” Being gluten-free, the authors suggest, should detract less from the impression a woman makes compared to a man.
Across two studies, Aloni et al. investigated the impact of being gluten-free on people’s perceptions of potential romantic partners. In the first study, a sample of 161 undergraduates (about 2/3 female) completed open-ended measures assessing the gluten-free stereotype (using an open-ended question) and what a gluten-free date would be like. They rated the positive and negative interpersonal qualities of such a person, whether a gluten-free date would be high-maintenance, and how feminine and masculine a gluten-free individual would seem. Participants also indicated if they’d be hesitant to date such a person, what their attitudes toward a gluten-free diet were, and how much they knew about people with a gluten-free diet both in terms of what the diet involves, and whether they actually knew anyone who is gluten-free.
As predicted, this correlational part of the research showed that if you’re gluten-free, you’re more likely to be seen as following a healthy diet, but unfortunately also to be seen as picky, high-maintenance, difficult to please, demanding, concerned about your appearance, and entitled. As if this weren’t enough, gluten-free individuals were perceived as complaining, critical and judgmental, and controlling and dominant. Some participants ridiculed the diet in their open-ended responses. There were some redeeming qualities, however, associated with the gluten-free diet such as being health-conscious and self-disciplined. Regarding gender perceptions, as the authors expected, gluten-free individuals were seen as more feminine and less masculine than others.
In the second, experimental, component of the research, Aloni and her associates asked 132 undergraduates (again, 2/3 female) to complete an online survey in which they provided ratings of a student’s dating profile (varying the profile’s gender), in which favorite books, movies, and TV shows included mention of being gluten-free (e.g. reading gluten-free cookbooks and going to gluten-free restaurants). Both dietary restriction and gender were manipulated so that participants read one of the four resulting profiles. There were bigender students in the sample, and they were randomly assigned to either a male or female dating profile. The ratings of these potential dating partners included perceptions of being high-maintenance, positive and negative, femininity and masculinity, and interest in dating. Participants also completed measures of their own attitudes toward the gluten-free diet.
The findings of the experimental study supported those of the questionnaire study in that gluten-free individuals were perceived as more likely to be high-maintenance and the men were seen as more feminine if their profile referred to their gluten-free status. However, the gluten-free individual was not seen as a less desirable dating partner, even when taking high maintenance perceptions into account.
Despite showing that dating interest was not a function of gluten-free status, the authors maintain that in a real-life setting, having a potential romantic partner who is gluten-free, particularly if it’s a man, could be a deterrent to future interest. The authors didn’t indicate in the experimental profiles whether the gluten-free choice made by the target was due to health reasons or a dietary preference. Furthermore, as would happen in real life, if your potential dating partner is gluten-free this could cause you to have to make sacrifices in your own choice of food or restaurants if you’re a gluten lover.
To sum up, the good news from this study is that if you are gluten-free, you don’t necessarily have to worry about compromising your diet to accommodate potential or existing romantic partners. If you’re a man, this can be a tougher situation. Whether male or female, the Western Connecticut study suggests that to avoid looking picky, own your gluten-free status and capitalize on the healthy features of a diet that can benefit you and you romantic partners.
Aloni, M., Geers, A. L., Coleman, M., & Milano, K. (2019). Too picky for my taste? The effect of the gluten-free dietary restriction on impressions of romantic partners. Appetite, 132, 55–66. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2018.09.012