As human beings, we have a natural tendency to be curious and to interpret our surroundings. It’s actually a necessary life skill if you think about it. We need to be able to observe what is around us and determine if it is threatening to us. Is that car speeding down the road going to run into us? Is the ice on the frozen pond thick enough to hold my weight? Is the dog walking my way friendly? Is that man in the hooded jacket threatening or just cold? From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s an important piece of our biology that was necessary for survival. But it’s also partly a learned behavior. Children, if you notice, because they have not yet gained many life experiences, are more curious and more trusting. Unless instructed or until they have a bad experience, they have not yet learned not to be too chatty with a stranger, or not to walk to close to the edge of a cliff. We are constantly learning and refining our reactions to what is around us based on our experiences.
However, because of the world we live in and the millions of interactions that we have, it is very possible to completely misinterpret what we see. Stereotypes we observe on TV and in the movies as well as the myriad of images coming at us via the internet and social media don’t help. Let me give you an example. Recently, I was sitting in a hotel lobby. I observed a man sitting nearby who had very long dread locks, was wearing high top sneakers and ripped whitewashed jeans. He was carrying some books and also some boxes of cereal that looked like they were from the breakfast bar at the hotel. I am ashamed to say that I judged this man based on his appearance. As I continued to observe, I watched as several kids came up to join him at his table. Some were accompanied by their parents. He engaged them in a lively conversation about…..Chess! As it turns out, this man is a Chess Master and also a teacher and tutor. He teaches chess classes in several Manhattan schools, coaches chess privately, and is a life coach. He has a successful business running the chess curriculum in the schools, and several of the kids he coaches have gone on to be national champion chess players. Pretty far cry from what my initial impressions were.
I should know better, because I often myself feel the sting of being misinterpreted. In terms of appearance, I am short, and I am blond. I appear a bit younger than my age (good genes). I’m kind of girly; I like to paint my nails, and I like fashionable clothing and jewelry. I like to wear high heels. If you saw me sitting in a hotel lobby, what would you think of me? Would it surprise you to know that I am a doctor? That I like Star Trek and a good science project? That I can recite “The Princess Bride” from start to finish? That I know the symbol of the Deathly Hallows? Total #nerdalert. It’s just an unfortunate fact of the current society that we live in that we make conclusions about each other based on the way we look.
I should know better, because in my line of work, I get to talk with many different people and patients about what is going on in their lives. It’s surprising, really, what people are dealing with behind the scenes. From dealing with a child with mental illness, questioning your own sexuality, and facing down a grave medical diagnosis, you just really never know what is going on in someone’s personal life.
I should also know better because I am a parent of young children. I think there is no profession that is judged more frequently than that of a parent. We’ve all been in the situation where your child is having a tantrum in the middle of Target and you get the silent glares from other shoppers. You let your child have Cheetos and orange soda in a moment of weakness and get the quiet reproach from the mom who cooks organic treats from scratch every day. As a parent, I have both judged others and been judged myself. But parenting is the hardest job in the world. Period. And we’re all doing the best we can with the resources available to us.
The woman who is being really mean to the waitress in the restaurant? Maybe she is going through a bitter divorce. The homeless person on the street who is talking to themselves? Likely suffering from significant mental illness. The work colleague who has purple hair, tattoos, and a nose piercing? Probably brilliant! So many different examples of how we can make assumptions of those around us based on visual information alone, and how this can cause us to come to an incorrect conclusion. So, be curious. Be compassionate. Don’t judge and never make assumptions that you know anything about someone’s life based on what you observe. Try not to get sucked into stereotypes. I’m certainly not perfect, I have to remind myself every single day.
May the Force be With You.