Perception.

My freshman year of college I met a girl named Leah in my “recruitment group” for rushing to join a sorority.  I didn’t like

Leah and I in 2010

Leah at first.  She was so friendly and bubbly to every person she met or talked to.  Always peppy with an extra spring in her step.  She was… fake.  I thought.  Who is happy and bubbly all the time?  No one, I believed.   Clearly she had to be a fraud, and I didn’t care for frauds.  Before you think I’m a jerk let me tell you that Leah wasn’t my biggest fan either.  She thought I was… stuck up.  Snobby.  That I thought I was better than everyone else.

Leah became one of my best friends in college, and we ended up living together for 3 years!  We still talk to this day, almost 7 years later.  I still consider her one of my best friends.  Apparently, our initial perceptions of each other were not accurate.

Leah is one of the most real people I know, always quick to share even the hard things in her life, her failings, and the deepest parts of her heart.  I wonder how many people may not have had the amazing opportunity to experience these parts of her because they wrote her off as “fake,” like I almost did.  Leah and I laugh now about the way we perceived each other our freshman year and how funny it is that we became such good friends.

Unfortunately, Leah is not the only person to confess that their first impression of me was that I am stuck up.  I actually hear that a lot, once people are at a place in our relationship where they feel comfortable sharing that with me.  Thankfully, they also affirm that once they got to know me they realize that it is not true of me.  The truth is that I am shy.  Super shy.  I get really uncomfortable in large crowds or groups of people I don’t know well.  And I hate small talk.  HATE.it.  It feels so superficial to me and I feel so fake when I attempt it.  I am a sucker for a good, long, deep, one-on-one conversation.  That’s where I’m in my element.  I like to be real, and I like to talk with people who are real with me about who they are and what they’re going through.   I like to just jump right into conversations about significant parts of this awful, beautiful world.  This whole, “Hi! I’m Krystal, nice to meet you!  Isn’t the weather just… great!  Wait no, I mean… it sucks.  Well weather in general doesn’t suck, but… this humidity?!”  Yea, I hate it.  You see how awkward it seems when I even just type it.  Not my thing.  So I just kind of… don’t talk much in new groups or large crowds.  Add to that the fact that my coping mechanism when I’m uncomfortable in social situations is sarcasm, and I guess I can see why I may come off as stuck up.  A couple of friends said they would also add to the equation that I love fashion/dressing trendy and that it can be intimidating to some people.  I am thankful that some of the people who thought these things still gave me a chance because they are some of my best friends today.  But it does make me sad that, in social situations, people perceive that I think I’m better than everyone else, when really the opposite is probably true.  It is more likely that I feel insecure and intimidated.

I asked friends on facebook to share with me some of the ways that they have been incorrectly perceived by others.  Here are some of the responses:

“A lot of people assume I’m homosexual. Doesn’t matter if they’ve had a direct interaction with me or not, and if they have how many times they’d actually talked to me. In fact, most of the people that ask me (or my friends) if I’m gay are people that have just met me or heard me talking in front of a group…But what does making that assumption mean? How many of my friendships have been affected by the apparent vibe I give off? Do guys not feel comfortable talking to me about ‘guy things?’ Do girls only talk to me because they want a ‘gay best friend?’ You might be laughing or shaking your head right now, but I can tell you from experience, people have approached me about things like that. I don’t even really know what I do to make people think that I am gay. Maybe because I dress well? I started dressing well to impress a girl I liked in high school. Maybe because my voice is a little in the tenor range? I can’t really control that. My mannerisms? I talk with my hands; most people in my family do. Maybe it’s a combination of all 3? Maybe it’s something completely else? And if I knew what made people think I’m gay, would I change whatever that is? Who am I, after all these years? ”

“I am always assumed to not be smart. I was meeting with the head of the English dept at Elon at the time about graduation and my requirements…I had her for at least 3 classes during my time at Elon and she actually said to me ‘you know, I didn’t expect very much of you when I saw you walk in…oh just some blonde supermodel sorority girl…but you’re actually really smart.’ those were her EXACT words and I have never forgotten them..I get this a lot, usually when I’m dating, guys are really surprised that I’m smart. I have no idea why, I’m guessing it’s because I have blonde hair, or put myself together well or something…or just because I don’t look like I live in the library (even though I actually do)”

“People  judge my faith in Christ based on my political statements, and judge my political statements not based on what I say but on what they believe; they ignore the words I say whenever anything could be construed as a negative statement about something they believe. And if they perceive my politics as differing from theirs, my faith differs as well. And if my faith differs, I have none. I believe a lot of people don’t think I’m a Christian at all, simply because I have different political views than they do.
I also believe people view my as arrogant or egotistical because of the same misinterpretation of the passion I feel towards my (rather moderate) political beliefs.
In reality, I’m not arrogant about what I believe at all; I’m very self-conscious about my beliefs, not because I think they’re wrong but because I worry people will be upset at me for what I believe. Even though I know it’s not true, I sometimes feel that if I feel bad about my believes because of how upset people get over them, maybe I’m a bad person for thinking that way. And my beliefs are not very extreme at all, but I think people view them as so since the area I live in is very conservative and anyone outside of that realm is automatically the enemy…”

A couple of months ago I read this article in Glamour magazine where they did a survey with 1,800 women that revealed that many people immediately perceive  overweight women as “lazy” or “sloppy,” and thin women as “vain” and “bitchy.”  It is a sobering and sad article about weight stereotyping.  Geez, I really wish women could just be for each other and help each other out instead of tear one another down, but that’s another post for another time (or has been another post at another time).

So why do we do this? Why do we so easily perceive people to be different from how they really are?  I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of weeks now, and here is what I have come up with (I will use my story with Leah as a hypothetical example for each one):

  1. We are projecting our past experiences on other people.
    If I had a past experience where I trusted someone who was friendly and bubbly only to find out that they were not really those things and they betrayed me, then I might think that people who act that way are all like that.
  2. We are projecting our insecurities on other people.
    If I were insecure about not feeling happy all the time, I might project that on Leah, disliking her because I assume she has something that I don’t.  It’s easier to assume something negative (“she’s just fake”) then to accept that she has what I want.
  3. We are projecting cultural stereotypes on other people.
    I have seen one too many movies where the bubbly, happy, cute girls turn out to be be back stabbers and sorority girls are anything but real.   This unfortunate stereotyping would cause me to assume that Leah (a bubbly, happy, cute sorority girl) is potentially a fake back-stabber.
  4. We are projecting the way that we are or the way we would/would not respond to things on other people.
    As I mentioned above, I am shy and not good at small talk.  When I am in big or new groups of people, I am intimidated, insecure, and shy.  So if I were to act bubbly and friendly, it would be fake.  Therefore, when I saw Leah doing these things, I may have assumed that about her.
  5. We are projecting values we have and characteristics we attribute to them onto others.
    I highly value vulnerability.  Some of the characteristics that I associate with vulnerability are the ability to jump straight into real talk, and a tendency to answer questions honestly (like “How are you doing?”).  So if Leah was acting excited about small talk, I may have assumed she was not a vulnerable person.

Perhaps it’s impossible not to ever assume truths about people that we do not know yet, but I do think it would do us all a huge favor if we tried a bit harder to get to know people first.  I wonder how many friendships, good conversations, or awesome life lessons I too have missed out on because I perceived someone to be different then who they really are.

I’ll close with a quote from one of the few things I actually enjoyed reading amidst all of the Chick-fil-a controversy craziness:

“Not every Christian who believes in “traditional marriage” is full of hate. Not every Christian who supports the civil rights of gay folks is a Bible-rejecting defector. Not every gay man wears glitter and drag in Pride Parades. We are not caricatures. We are people, and life is nuanced. Until we stop assigning stereotypes to each other and do the hard work of actually getting to know one another as friends, or at least human beings, we are going to sabotage every good, productive possibility in front of us. Gross generalities are lazy…” –Jen Hatmaker

Amen girl!

KM

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