We live in a perceptions are reality kind of world.
On the drive home the other day, I started making a right turn after the light turned green. A couple people who had been chatting on the corner suddenly decided to push the pedestrian walk light and go. I was already passing through their crosswalk, and came quite close while they were trying to cross the street. From their perspective, I probably appeared reckless–even malicious–some asshole who doesn’t know how to drive, endangering pedestrians. As I continued driving down the street I could see both of them in my rear-view mirror with middle fingers raised high. It was completely unintentional. If I had been playing it as safely as possible I could have waited another 5 or 10 seconds after the light changed to see if they were going to go from talking idly to walking across the street. It would have prevented the whole thing. But once it happened, it colored their entire perspective of who I was and what I’m like.
Our understanding of other people and the world we inhabit is primarily at the surface. As soon as we start to create a narrative about something, it’s hard for the story we’re telling ourselves to change–even if there is new information or contradiction.
Think about the people you work with. Unless you are good friends with them outside of work, your idea of who they are and how they operate is most likely shaped by a few, obvious surface features. The football team they like. How often they get drunk. How their work ethic appears. What kind of romantic relationship they’re in. If they have kids. Unless you’re really close and openly converse with each other about anything and everything, the person you’re interacting with at work is primarily just a perception of who they are and not the full-fledged human being.
The perceptions, the streamlined narratives we create based on a few features, are part of our human nature. We make them about other people, events in the world, and the rest of the things that confront us, because they help us boil it down to categories we can understand and pieces we can chew. As I’ve written before, us and them, right and wrong, and other categories like that, feel good and helpful because it turns a complex world into a (supposedly) understandable one. But that’s not a very enlightened level of understanding.
Rarely is the world as neat as clean categories and obvious observations. Perceptions often lie. We like them, and use them for other people because we want to make a judgment about who they are, file it away in our brain, and move on to other things. We have a version of them we can grasp and gameplan for. But when it comes to ourselves, we’d prefer to think we are exceedingly complex, and that few people (if anyone) understand the real me. I didn’t feel I was very well understood when I was getting flipped the bird. I definitely could have done things differently, but that situation didn’t encapsulate who I am–the apparent asshole.
Perhaps this explains the intrigue and popularity of a show like Making a Murderer. Through a very patient filming process, and expert editing to convey all of the nuance, we come to see as the audience that the immediate perceptions of criminal and victim, good and bad, law-enforcer and law-breaker, innocent and guilty, are not always true, helpful, or easily distinguished. We come to see that a few surface judgments about socioeconomic class, grooming and appearance, and minor indiscretions in the past quickly turn into a rich narrative about how someone is “evil incarnate,” an immense danger to society, and the obvious perpetrator of a crime that there’s actually little evidence for (evidence that may have even been tampered with or planted). If you haven’t seen the show you should watch it, and pay particular attention to how clean-cut the story about Steven Avery is in the media and prosecution’s telling, versus the kind of detail you get from his interviews with the filmmakers, interviews with family, and the evidence from a more objective viewpoint. How does the perception of Steven Avery in the public eye match up with the real Steven Avery (as best we can tell from everything we’re shown)?
Perceptions are too easy. If we don’t want others’ view of us to be oversimplified, we shouldn’t want to have and hold oversimplified ones about other people either. Living off of perception creates everything from brief interpersonal conflict–like the pedestrians I passed too closely–to getting someone wrongfully imprisoned once–if not twice–for a huge chunk of their life. We should expect more than this from ourselves and from each other.
So dig. Go deeper. Look and listen patiently. Go beyond how someone or a situation first appears to what’s actually being said and done. How might the person or thing be being misconstrued–in your own mind or publicly? Push through the perceptions you have, and see if there are pieces that you missed. Your co-worker’s life story is probably a lot more complex (and interesting) than you think.
Have you fully examined things closely yourself? Or did you quickly form an opinion based on hearsay or one side of the issue? Something coming to you only through the media or only through someone you like has already probably skewed it in a particular direction.
Talk with people who disagree with you. Listen to their view of things, and thoughtfully give it the best consideration to be right and closer to reality before you begin critiquing it and breaking it down.
Go deeper than perceptions.