Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone else’s face. Frightened? Confused? Wondering whether you’re dreaming? The level of concern here connects us to why we get frustrated when other people don’t seem to see us accurately. We act in an ‘as if’ universe, where our behavior is done ‘as if’ it is as immediately understandable and clear to everyone else as it is to ourselves. When the reality that others don’t have immediate clear access to our own minds comes crashing down with all the weight of their judgment, there’s often an immediate feeling of annoyance, if not outright anger.

I believe the pure relief and, often, joy of ‘being seen’ makes sense when placed against the backdrop of living a life in a world that doesn’t conform to our ‘as if’ belief. There’s a weight lifted and that release forms many a basis for love and intimacy. Of course it does. Who wouldn’t want to create a life with someone who, out of the thousands that came before, takes away the constant wariness of looking in the mirror of our social interactions and possibly not seeing our own face?

Why is it, then, so difficult for others to understand us? We’re the same species. We’re using the same words in sentences that, in a specific culture, are generally accepted as having a common meaning. While we will accept that other people don’t have access to our inner mind, this seems a small thing. Unfortunately it isn’t small. It’s not even large. It’s the whole problem.

Past, Present, Future

In this world of digitized behavior, kept for all eternity, the human proclivity to organize the present in line with the past has gotten enormous support.

In a nutshell, people will interpret your current behavior in a way that makes it consistent with your past behavior, and they will tend to play down or completely ignore evidence that contradicts their existing opinion of you. What’s more, they will have no idea that they’re doing it.

Psychology Today

The quote from Heidi Halvorson above is perhaps a bit more positive than warranted, in the sense that people will “have no idea” they’re ignoring evidence to the contrary of a set opinion. On the contrary, quite often evidence to the contrary is deliberately dismissed as being aberrations, as detours from the ‘true’ reality of the person being judged. This dismissal is particularly strong when judgment is joined with identity. In other words, it’s not simply that a behavior is wrong, it’s that the behavior is representative of their associated race, gender, social group. Any contrary behavior to this homogenized story will be dismissed as belonging to a long con or other form of manipulation.

There is a space in which people are unaware they’re ignoring data, often in the day-to-day minutiae of life. Ever been driving and suddenly came to the realization that you don’t remember the last several miles? This detached or autopilot thinking happens fairly often, especially when a job is repetitious or a person feels no sense of ownership for what they’re engaged in. We can acknowledge this tendency while still pointing to how certain ideologies seem to support doing so deliberately. Anytime in which a part of someone is taken to be the whole, rest assured there are a great many variables/aspects/characteristics/behavior being dismissed.

The First Will Be Last

First impressions are, as the oft-repeated advice goes, very important. The strength of these first impressions is intimately tied to the degree of cognitive/emotional weight given to a situation. As noted above, that weight is shifted and focused more fully based on ideologies that parse people into singular identities, rather than whole people who contain multitudes. That said, seeing a random person on public transit will not generate many associations and you likely won’t remember them if you were to see the person later. If, however, they had been belligerent to you personally, or had engaged in behavior deemed bizarre, then later there’d be a quick judgment applied. Also, a random person will generate weaker associations than someone you’re interviewing for an important job or who shows up to take your kid out for a romantic date.

In other words, information we get about a person early in our observation of them influences how we interpret and remember everything that comes after.

Psychology Today

Early impressions are within the same mental spectrum of bias, but they’re stronger precisely because they’re fed by other biases and themselves become one. Indeed, first impressions are encouraged to be especially defining because they’re so often associated with one’s intuition, a form of knowing felt to be pure.

Importantly here is recognizing that, whatever the limitations of first impressions may be, the influence is ongoing. We will actively interpret a person’s behavior, not based on the intent of that person, but on the story we already have of them. Further, our memory will follow suit, selectively recalling the information that fits that story as well.

It’s the Relationship

So how do we learn to mitigate these influences? How do we start to live in such a way that the lack of our access to other people’s minds is not just acknowledged but constrains our own behavior? First and foremost, we need to look at how we construct our perspectives, namely through relationship.

Perspective and the communication based off it, is too often assumed to be like lobbing a ball back and forth over an invisible line. Each person has their space and they receive the proverbial ball whole and complete exactly as intended. The complete error of this metaphor cannot be overstated. At best what is going on is the communication ball is being shaped by the interweaving of at least six variables or threads as it moves from one person to another.

  1. Intent of person A
  2. History of person A
  3. Environmental context(s)
  4. Intent of person B
  5. History of person B
  6. Automatic biases of A and B

None of these threads are singular in themselves either. The history and intent of a person will be a build-up of learned assumptions based on all the interrelationships they’ve had throughout their lives. Nobody can have access to all that. For that matter, nobody has conscious access to all those pieces of information for themselves.

The best we can do, and it’s really not as depressing as it may initially look, is to take a pause before or very quickly after each judgment we have. Within this pause, we can consider how much the story we have about the other person is about our own judgments and the influences of our many layered context. Within that pause we can learn to listen more, speak less and seek first a greater understanding of our fellow traveler in humanity. Judgment is undoubtedly going to happen, but we don’t need to hasten its arrival.

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