In the previous segments of this series, we discussed how to choose references for a shidduch resume and reviewed the skills necessary to be an effective and helpful reference. In this final segment of the series, we will consider those making the shidduch call and how one can successfully gather information that is both useful and pertinent.
Whom to Call
To accomplish the task of successful shidduch research, rather than “winging it” or asking standard, run-of-the-mill questions, it is highly beneficial to first put together a prioritized list of questions. When one knows in advance what information is most important to them, what requires in-depth answers, and what can be answered quickly or even left unaddressed if time does not allow, the caller can better create a conversation which will provide significant value and meaningful information.
Additionally, it is often not practical or time efficient to reach all of the references listed. Two to three will usually suffice to gain a basic understanding of what the single person in question is like, unless there is a particular concern that one feels needs more attention and a broader selection of people to speak to the matter. As such, it is equally beneficial to prioritize whom one would like to call.
Although it was previously mentioned that when preparing a shidduch profile a single person should be listing references from the most recent stages of his or her life, if that is not the case, and there are three rebbeim or teachers listed on a profile, some older and some newer, one should focus on calling the most recent ones. For example, beis medrash rebbeim over high school for young men, and seminary or late high school over middle and early high school for young women.
Unless there is a specific concern – such as noticing five different schools within the course of five years – when one calls references from years back, it can reflect poorly on the questioner, and even make one seem overly zealous by digging up old and irrelevant information.
When it comes to speaking with friends of the young man or woman, it is generally preferable to focus on married friends over single friends. Although there is certainly benefit to speaking with a young man or woman’s single friends, especially when a single’s closest friends are still single themselves, married friends often have the ability to speak about the single within the scope of marriage and in a more mature fashion than can single friends. And perhaps more importantly, because married friends will generally be preoccupied with the new demands of married life, there is usually less risk of their passing the conversation around than might be the case among single friends – and great harm can come to a shidduch when these conversations make the rounds among friends.
Meaningful Information Gathering
That which truly lies at the crux of successful shidduch research calls is garnering information that is clear, truthful, and meaningful, and there are two tactics I would like to discuss that can greatly improve the substance of the information received.
Tactic One: The more opened-ended questions one asks, the better. For example, if one were to ask someone who won the lottery, “Were you surprised to have won the lottery?” or “Does it feel great to be rich now?” in all likelihood, the answer will either be yes or no (more likely yes in such a scenario), and that will be the end of the conversation. On the other hand, if one were to ask the winner, “What was your reaction to winning the lottery” or “How does it feel to go from being poor to rich in a heartbeat?” the answers provided will almost surely be much richer and more detailed.
The same is true when looking into a shidduch. When one asks pointed questions, such as, “Is she nice? Is she a baalas chesed?” or “Is he serious about his learning, and does he have good middos?” it presents two problems. First of all, the person on the other end often assumes that there is a hidden agenda and tries to figure out what the questioner may have heard from someone else and what exactly it is they are trying to unearth with this very specific question. When that occurs, it often leads to recalcitrance on the part of the interviewee for fear they may tank the shidduch if they say the wrong thing.
Secondly, even if the interviewee responds to the question without wondering what is behind it, the answer will still either be yes or no, and that will be that. The more specific the initial questions are, the less information will generally be gathered.
A better starting point is to ask, “Can you tell me about this person?” or “What qualities about this person stand out most in your mind?” Now, oftentimes, the person being called will respond by stating, “Ask me a question” – to which one can politely reply, “I just did ask you a question.” It may sound a bit glib, but it helps make the point. Many people on the receiving end believe that pointed and specific questions are easier to handle because they are more straightforward, even though, in actuality, they are usually more difficult to respond to and lead to the aforementioned difficulties.
The goal is to remain equanimous and stick with open-ended questions. The more one can accomplish this, the better the information will be. Once the person with whom one is speaking becomes comfortable with this broader question, he or she will begin sharing the qualities that most naturally and honestly come to mind regarding the young man or woman being discussed.
Tactic Two: Once specific qualities or traits are shared, that is the time to lead the conversation towards the particulars of the quality or trait. When the interviewee initiates mention of a topic, they no longer feel fearful of what one is trying to dig up, because they themselves have voluntarily shared the information. As such, they will usually be much more comfortable elaborating on the point without hesitation or reluctance. As more points are mentioned by the person being interviewed, the questioner can go through them one at a time to get elucidation and elaboration on each point. In particular, it is often very helpful to ask for examples in action of the quality or trait mentioned, to be sure that one is clear about the nature of what is being shared.
For instance, if the interviewee mentions that a young man or woman is “neat,” hearing examples of this quality will help clarify if neat means more orderly than most people, extremely orderly, or bordering on obsessive. Almost all qualities and traits fall on a spectrum, and examples assist in better understanding where on the spectrum this particular single person falls and what the interviewee meant when they shared that specific quality.
As an added benefit, if one speaks with two or three people, and more than one of them shares an identical quality, without having been prompted, there is then a greater likelihood that what has been shared is indeed reflective and descriptive of the young man or woman being inquired about.
At this point, one can go back to the original prioritized list and check if the matters they deem important were addressed. If they were, that says a great deal. If they were not, it is possible that the single one is asking about does not match the qualities one is looking for. Or it may mean that now is the time for more incisive questions – not check-list-style questions, but specific questions for a very real and important reason.
Listed References vs. Unlisted References
Another point which must be addressed is that the purpose of the initial calls made to listed references is in order to gather general information about the nature and qualities of the single person in question. The aim is not to unearth significant concerns or issues, a matter we will discuss in greater length below. Rather, these conversations are meant to gain a precursory understanding of the personality and better qualities of this single person, and to gauge whether or not it sounds like a shidduch that is shayach (appropriate).
For instance, wanting to be involved in kiruv in a small town is a great and admirable quality, but it likely will not match up with a single who wants to live in a large and more bustling Jewish community. Being thoughtful, calculated, and deliberate are wonderful maalos, but often are not simpatico with someone who must live life at a faster pace.
That is what calling listed references is all about: trying to estimate, to the best of one’s ability, if the two people being redt to one another would appear to be a good match, based on their personalities and what they are looking for in a spouse. And it is to accomplish this task that the above tactics were given.
Nonetheless, there is a shita among many to never call the actual listed references because of a belief that they cannot be trusted. It is thought that whatever qualities they share will be exaggerated letov (toward the positive), and if specific attributes are asked about, a listed reference will ascribe them to the single, regardless of whether or not the attribute is actually reflective of the young man or woman in question.
However, the flaw in this approach is that the references one finds on their own may not know the young man or woman as well as the listed references do and may be misinformed or have outdated information, even if they are more “honest.” Wrong or misleading information is just as bad, if not far worse, than exaggerated information. If one is so worried about what they will be told that they feel the only way to gather information is through back-channel upon back-channel, there is a high probability that the information received will be less than stellar.
Additionally, and more relevant to the overall topic at hand, is that if one is able to conduct the conversation using the aforementioned framework, it should greatly alleviate the concern that the person being interviewed will ascribe to the single, via affirmation, qualities that do not exist in them at all. If the questions presented are open-ended and require the interviewee to come up with qualities and character traits without being specifically asked, and if those matters freely shared are then further discussed, it should prove more than reasonable that the information is solid and reliable.
Who Should Make the Call?
It must be noted, however, that there are two crucial qualifications to this this point. The first is based on an insight I heard from Rabbi Shraga Neuberger. While it is true that, with the right touch, almost anyone can get useful and truthful information from listed references, that does not mean that they should be the one making the call. Whenever possible, it is highly beneficial to have someone with whom one is close and who personally knows the listed reference make the call.
For example, it will likely be more efficacious to have one’s own rav, teacher, or rebbe make a call to the rav, teacher, or rebbe who has been listed as a reference, if the two of them are already familiar with one another. The same is true if one has a friend who is also a friend of one of the listed references. People are simply more comfortable having conversations with those whom they are already know – certainly for shidduch check-up calls.
While one may be able to get the same information on their own from a reference, it will certainly take much more time, effort, and skill. Conversations between two people who already know one another will, in all probability, be smoother and clearer; and that is why, when such an opportunity presents itself, it is wise to ask a mutual connection to make the call to a listed reference on one’s behalf and report back with the information received.
The Value of Unlisted References
The second qualification regarding the tactics listed previously, and the value of calling listed references, is that it is almost always necessary to make additional calls, specifically to non-listed references. Unlike the calls made to listed references in order to gather information intended to describe the nature of the young man or woman one is attempting to learn about, the primary purpose of calling non-listed references is to ascertain if there are any major concerns which listed references would not have shared or were not aware of. This is especially necessary when one has heard mention of a specific concern, or even when one merely has a feeling that there is a concern that is being hidden, and is looking to determine whether it is valid or spurious. That is the time to ask pointed questions about very specific matters.
The strategy of calling listed references is an excellent way to obtain an accurate description of the single person being suggested, but it will rarely succeed in unearthing concerning information which must be addressed. To be sure that there are no significant concerns, one must reach out to one’s own references and connections. Learning the reality of such concerns may mean that either the shidduch is not one to be pursued or that the concerns must be broached openly and clearly during the dating process to decide whether or not the shidduch can be continued. Either way, it is often non-listed references who are most likely going to provide such information.
The Risk of Anonymity
One final topic I would like to touch upon before concluding this series is the matter of whether or not to remain anonymous when making shidduch research calls. While I believe we can all appreciate the desire to maintain privacy, and there are certainly benefits to the interviewee not being able to figure out who is on the other end of the call, there is an inherent danger in doing so. Namely, for many people, receiving an anonymous call, and one about a sensitive matter, can be rather unpalatable and disquieting. When that is the case, any value gained through anonymity may be lost if the interviewee is now put off, angry, or nervous. This can easily lead to a conversation which does not provide useful information, or, worse, it may become a poor or contentious conversation which may then unfairly reflect negatively on the single person being inquired about.
An extreme example may be a middle-aged man calling the house of a newly-married couple asking to speak with the young wife, and refusing to give his name, which may not be appreciated by the young man who answers the phone. The same may be true when calling to speak with a young single woman and refusing to tell her parents who it is that wants to speak with their daughter. Even in less extreme scenarios, many people just do not feel at ease without knowing whom they are speaking with.
Additionally, I was recently told by a rav who receives many shidduch research calls that when the caller does not share their name, and even goes so far as blocking their caller ID, it wholly deprives him the opportunity of calling back in cases where he would like to add to the previous conversation. Consequently, one must carefully measure the value and risks of remaining anonymous throughout a shidduch call before choosing to employ such a strategy.
B’ezras Hashem, the ideas and guidelines provided throughout this series will enable all those who are involved in shidduchim to more efficaciously proceed through the stages of shidduch research. And they may, ultimately, allow us to assist and partner with Hakadosh Baruch Hu in being moishav yechidim baysah (settling individuals in a home).
Hakaras hatov is once again due to Rabbi Tzodek Katz for providing the meat of the content for this series.