Tonight I dropped my step-daughter off at Muay Thai practice at a local boxing club and drove up to a coffee shop to start working on this post. I didn’t like the look of the first place I pulled into so I moved onto the second one. I ordered my coffee (decaf -- it’s late), a small treat, and found a nice booth far enough away from the door so I wouldn’t have to contend with the bitterness outside interrupting the flow I’m hoping to fall into. I am, after all, here to work solely on this blog post. To the people around me who are keen enough to notice, I’m working on a Macbook, wearing a cardigan, and have my hair in a man-bun.
Sitting in this laughable stereotype I’m struck wondering how it looks to outsiders, and how I would perceive myself if I looked at me. Would it be favourable? There’s a woman roughly my age sitting at a booth in front of me facing the other direction. Would this be something she considers attractive? Not that I’m looking for it, but it’s one of those things we just wonder about, isn’t it? Or perhaps the pretentious nature of my arrangement would turn that thought on its side. The elderly gentlemen who have the good spot by the electric fireplace with the comfy chairs didn’t even look up when I walked by, but they’re to my back now, so who knows what they’ve thought or even said amongst themselves (my affinity for loud music gets in the way of outside conversations). Whatever my co-patrons of this coffee shop decide about me or not based on my appearance is something I’ll likely never know, but that’s probably for the best. Besides, I’ve made my thoughts about them, and I’m certain they wouldn’t like to hear them.
But therein lies the problem, doesn’t it? Without any provocation or proper introduction I’ve made up my mind. It’s out of their control entirely, and vice versa. Sure, we could end up having a conversation, sharing a decaffeinated beverage and even becoming friends (unlikely given my track record for social dysfunction), but that wouldn’t change this moment and the thoughts we held. Appearances ultimately drive our initial reactions; so much so that I can’t really come up with an example where an immediate visual, audible, or olfactory impression doesn’t work to immediately bias us on something, good or bad.
The problem is that this is so fucking flawed isn’t it? Based on my initial statement (coffee shop, cardigan, Mac, man-bun) you might find your way to some conclusions that I would consider unfair. The reality, however, isn’t quite as impressive as it might sound. I’m sitting in a Tim Horton’s that’s adjacent to a bus station. My cardigan is from Walmart and is starting to look worn. The Mac is provided by my company for work, and the man-bun is spectacular. But the decision about my appearance has already been made, and anything I’m doing now is just fighting back the conclusions you’ve already found.
We experience this in a lot of ways every day, whether we consciously recognize it or not. Every morning (Monday to Friday) I get up and go to the gym. To set the scene, I'm currently a 320+lb guy who doesn’t exactly sparkle in the morning. I put on loose fitting gym clothes that do their best to hold back the deluge of body trying to spill out of them and muster up the courage to walk through the door. I get inside and survey the surroundings and see generally the same thing every morning. Fit people. Those people who, like me, are also there every morning at this time working on themselves. I see them, and I fill in the blanks internally about them, and I hate it. It’s a reaction that serves me no good value at all, if anything, it’s a hindrance. A mental checklist I need to work through before I can focus on what really matters, which is me. That’s the element of importance and the only thing I can confidently know the story behind. The only one in that room who I can see and recognize the real flaws and successes; even if I lie to myself about them sometimes.
It’s this self-actualization that may be the most significant change that I can make about myself, and one I would love to suggest you internalize in yourself. That even if someone sees me hoist myself out of my car and penguin walk towards the door and thinks, “Oh lawd he comin’”, that the individual I present and the assumption they’ve reached doesn’t actually have any impact on me. And to further the mind-fuck, without someone flat out telling me they had these thoughts I’m assuming they thought them based on my conclusions drawn from their appearance, another stupid thing to do on my part.
So where does this bring me? My decaf coffee consumed, the donut long gone and my co-patrons swapped out for a new group after a different bus pulled into the station (our thoughts about each other swapped out with them). Maybe it’s that the problem with judging based on appearances isn’t that we do it (because there has been plenty of research into the fact that humanity is prone to this action), but that we accept the results as something that can affect us. We let the idea that because we make assumptions based on appearances of others, that they must do the same, and this augments how we see and think about ourselves. We might feel hurt or feel good, we might feel a weird conflicting sense of self-worth and smugness. Whatever it may be, it’s a lie we’re telling ourselves. Whether it boosts our spirit or brings us down it’s (generally) ephemeral, short lived, and bullshit. The woman sitting in front of me in the booth may not have thought anything more than “What an ugly cardigan”. The older gentlemen were so deeply engaged in conversation they may not have even noticed me throughout their stay enough to warrant consideration. My own assumptions about both other parties are probably so far off the mark it would be embarrassing to even discuss it with them. The simple reality is that they don’t matter. Not to me, not to them. The things you think others believe about you don’t matter either.
We can let them go peacefully into the void and carry on with the story that matters, the one we’re the author of.