By Mischa Ledder
Within a tenth of a second, we make instant judgments. Unconscious calculations fire in our brain to predict what a person might be like or act before we know them. Though it’s an instinctual human reaction, our instant judgments can be incorrect. The mood we are in that day, our upbringings, our known and unknown biases, among many other factors, can affect how we size people up. These instant judgments are not necessarily evil, but I wanted to see just how flawed my judgments of people were, so I sat in public, sized people up and then approached them to find out who they really were.
My first subject walked into Intersect on a snowy Wednesday afternoon at 2:11 pm. I made eye contact with her as she entered. She was 5’5’’, with a leaner build, and impeccable hygiene. She was maybe in her late twenties. Her wavy, dirty blond hair contained hues of orange and rested a little below her shoulders. She wore dark jeans, a feminine grey sweater and a puffy aqua green jacket with a dark pink liner from Patagonia. A calm expression rested on her face. She held herself like a teacher. There was a sense of warmth and confidence. Her overall demeanor and clothes pointed to wealth. Conversations with the bartenders were effortless and smooth. She seemed like a Mary and probably was athletic. Married (how couldn’t she be, she’s so pretty), wants children, but doesn’t have them yet and is a college graduate for sure. Within seconds I created her story.
I approached her. Her name wasn’t Mary, but it was a common female name. She asked to be anonymous and chose the name Sarah. Sarah is forty, is not married, has no children and is a psychologist who focuses on trauma and treating PTSD. She worked with Vets for a long time, is smart and easy to talk to. She volunteers helping animals, loves being outside and going on hikes and is a gardener. Her smile is often commented on and she loves to laugh. Strangers usually perceive her as being intimidating, mainly because she is pretty, which she admits is frustrating because people who haven’t even talked to her are deterred because of her looks. I will admit there have been times in my life where another’s beauty made me feel insecure, but after talking to Sarah, I realized it's a fear and insecurity worth overcoming because if you approach them and start up a conversation, they just might surprise you. Sarah is one of the warmest people I’ve talked with in a while.
Subject two I judged rather harshly. I walked into a yoga studio to sign up for a membership. The lady behind the counter seemed to be in her late twenties. I gave her the name Jenny because she was standoffish and cold (I’m sorry if you are a Jenny, I am sure you are a warm-hearted individual). I felt I was being judged before I said a word, instantly felt not good enough. She was intimidating and I labeled her a stuck-up yogi who felt more superb than others.
Her name is Maj-Lis, not Jenny. She is thirty-seven and owns the yoga studio. When I asked her how she is most often judged, she answered that people judge her motivations. She tries to act out of kindness and love, but being a business owner has its hurdles. People judge her motives and wonder if she cares about them or if she just wants their money and business. She hopes people don’t judge her motives as selfish, because they aren’t. Being in management and leadership most her life, people think she’s intimidating. She is confident in who she is and it can easily be viewed as arrogance. She stated, “There is a fine line between coming off as arrogant when it’s just self-confidence.” Turns out she has a big heart, is down to earth, and fun. Though, if you go to one of her hot yoga classes, know she keeps the room hotter than any other instructor.
Subject number three was unexpected and prevented me from studying for an Anthropology test. He was a middle-aged man maybe in his late fifties and sat at the bar drinking his second beer. His grey and white hair looked like a mullet because it was tucked behind his ears. He wore normal attire, a grey hoodie, worn out jeans, and brown leather boots. I guessed he was an engineer or held a job requiring a decent amount of manual labor. While he was sociable, he was almost too sociable, which made me guess he was divorced and had kids, but they are probably estranged from him. He seemed lonely.
When I started talking to Kim about judgment, the first thing he said was people probably think, “Keep your kids away from that guy over there,” which made me laugh. He said it jokingly, but he admitted his hair is at an awkward stage right now, and he looks old and scraggly. A mullet is a tell-tale sign of a child predator. I kid, I kid. Kim grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, is on his third marriage and has two kids. He’s a very supportive father and not at all estranged from his kids. He worked in government intelligence for forty years before retiring.
A five-minute interview turned into an hour and a half conversation as I asked Kim who he was. “An intellectual,” he said with pride. He got it from his mother who was one of those people who were borderline insane or genius, but she bounced back and forth between the two a little too much. Since his dad was a long-distance truck driver, he and his five siblings didn’t have much supervision. When he or his siblings came home, the first thing they would ask each other in passing was, how’s mom? Fighting back tears he told me he knew from the reply the state she was in and whether or not to approach her. He had never shared this aspect of his life with anyone except his siblings.
He joined the army and got out of his small town. He always viewed himself as a warrior and wanted to be a soldier. He told countless war stories of fighting in the Cold War and cried as he recounted his whereabouts on 9/11. A few minutes before the plane hit, he left the Pentagon and watched as the plane flew over his car. He knew immediately it was not on a designated flight path and got out of his car to see it hit the building. The section of the Pentagon the plane hit had been under reconstruction, but many still lost their lives.
I will never forget Kim. At some point in the conversation, I stopped taking notes because it had evolved into a deep moment of human connection. He welcomed me into his story, showed me his heart and let me see a glimpse of the reality of war and the effects it has on an individual as well as countries. My life knows nothing of war, government, and the ins and outs of Government intelligence. Kim opened my mind to see how vastly different individuals are. I had no schema for the life he lived.
We truly have no idea who a person is until we ask them. I was completely off in my judgments, especially in regards to those I judged the harshest and through all my encounters, I discovered in a deeper way we are all just humans, trying to navigate through life and figure it all out. I have a choice to give others the benefit of the doubt and encourage them if but for a moment, or to trust my instant judgments and walk the other way, never to know them.