“That Doesn’t Surprise Me”

I’m always on the lookout for how people try to signal high status.

Here’s a subtle example I’ve discovered recently. Tell someone a fact they don’t know, and listen for the answer: “That doesn’t surprise me.”

The other day I told a guy who’s well connected in tech: “Did you know that Joe had a falling out with his cofounder, and so he has moved on to a new project?”

The other guy’s reply: “That doesn’t surprise me.”

The alternative answer would have been: “Huh, I didn’t know that.” By saying “That doesn’t surprise me,” he conveyed that he did not, in fact, know the thing that was just said to him, but rather than stop there — which would have lowered his status relative to me in that moment — he simultaneously conveyed the fact that he would have guessed the fact to be the case had he been asked. All done in one tidy sentence.

As another example, Donald Trump’s first quoted response to the Harvey Weinstein news was: “I’m not surprised.”

Signaling status in this way is not necessarily good or bad or even that important. It’s fun to notice it. And, sometimes, it can be a useful data point as you build psychological models of how the people around you operate, and in particular, as you predict how status-oriented a person might be.

7 comments on ““That Doesn’t Surprise Me”
  • Really interesting point. As with all status games, there are multiple explanatory levels.

    One other level here seems to be — there’s a reason *why* I’m not surprised, and that’s potentially new information in the conversation.


    Alice: “I just heard that Carol got fired.”

    Bob: “That doesn’t surprise me.”

    Alice: “Oh really, why?”

    Bob: “I heard from Carol’s boss that she was doing poorly months ago.”

    Generally, this seems like a status-grabbing way of Bob to bring the info to the conversation. Because it makes Alice asks Bob an additional question instead of Bob just offering the new info ex nihilo.

    (Btw, another status signal: using Latin phrases in casual conversation.)

  • In Latin America, status is of utmost importance. You will almost never hear anyone say, “I don’t know” to any question you ask. They’ll fudge something instead.

    I’ll certainly say “I didn’t know that” and the like, but I’m not sure every single case of “That doesn’t surprise me” is status signalling. Still, interesting observation.

  • Isn’t it also possible that the person just wasn’t surprised…

    The most straightforward interpretation of the phrase you are disparaging is ‘that information fits with my expectations’. Someone saying that *could* be motivated to do so by some hyper-competitive need to signal their intellectual superiority or… they could just not be surprised. The devil is in the motivation and the personality involved, not the phrase itself.

    Similarly, if you are “always on the lookout” for people trying to signal higher status you are likely to find it, what with confirmation bias and all our other selective biases. And that means your Type I error rate will be significantly increased.

    I mean, is this critical post by me an attempt to curry status amongst strangers or is it just me voicing disagreement? And what about your original post? Couldn’t that be interpreted as you seeking to reassert your status after a failed attempt to an elicit ‘that is surprising’ response by signalling your higher perceptive abilities to your readers, post-conversation, with a ‘well-connected tech guy’?

    My point is the knife cuts both ways and endlessly.

    If you interpret others actions as being primarily motivated by status seeking it seems only fair to apply the same standard closer to home. But that ends up making everyone and every social interaction look bad!

  • Perhaps it’s the use of “me” that grates. Would a more impersonal phrase like, “Not altogether surprising,” be a better way to convey that the outcome wasn’t shocking?

  • I think you’re reading way too much into this, if I may be so bold. It’s equivalent to saying “Shocker” when some entirely predictable news breaks. In the case of negative outcomes related to other people behaving badly, I think it’s also a commentary on worst kept secrets and signals that the situation was transparent.

    For example, I was recently told that someone I knew to be a sexual predator was accused of rape. My response? “I have no doubt that is true.” Is that a subconscious status signal? What does it mean that I say, “I didn’t know that, but it doesn’t surprise me”? 🙂

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