“Don’t judge my story based on the chapter you walked in on.”
Buying a book off the shelf is a sensuous experience for book lovers like me. Our eyes glide across the shelves of colorful titles. The whiff of freshly printed books lulls us into intellectual bliss. The feel of each book that we pull out entices us to find out what’s inside.
We take great delight in the taking our time to select just the ‘right book’ for that specific moment in time. We open them, read a few sentences, study the synopsis, and browse the table of contents. Some readers might even take out their phones to quickly scan a few online book reviews before purchasing.
When determining whether or not we like a book (or any product), it’s easy to be deliberate and thoughtful in our approach. But when it comes to judging people, it’s a totally different story. We tend to instantly evaluate those we encounter based on what we see on the surface. This is the equivalent of judging the book by its cover, without bothering to browse through its contents.
All of us are predisposed to evaluate others based on appearances. That’s why people go to great lengths to construct the perfect image – their fashion sense, grooming, and the shape of their body. They polish their speech and mannerisms to impress. In a world where outward appearances matter in the social and professional sphere, looks have a high premium.
But are superficial traits sufficient when it comes to gauging a person’s character? The answer most of us is definite ‘no’. There have been some exceptions, like Marcel Guillaume or Milton Erickson, who had many years of experience on reading non-verbal cues under their belt, but most of us lack the insight and objectivity to get accurate impressions during brief encounters.
While appearance is an integral piece of an individual’s persona, it’s not enough. Even though we’re aware of this, it’s still a challenge to resist making instant judgments. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explains how we’re all prone to unconscious prejudices without even thinking. Our likes, dislikes, and stereotypes, affect us on a subconscious level, rapidly working towards creating an impression of someone without us realizing that it’s happening.
To compound the negative impact of existing unconscious biases, many people are simply ‘cognitively lazy’. They don’t want to make an effort to get to know others and prefer talking about themselves instead. They would rather stick with the existing impressions that they have of people, instead of challenging them. There’s also a tendency to go into self-protection mode. Instinctively, we feel the need to protect ourselves from being vulnerable to perceived threats.
The truth is that you end up doing yourself a disservice when you prejudge another individual before getting to know them better. You miss out on potentially enriching friendships, partnerships, and alliances when you try to fit people into the preconceived boxes that you’ve created for your own convenience. You could even put yourself in harm’s way if you’re too quick to trust manipulators, sociopaths, amateurs, and fakes – they are masters at concealing their ill intentions and duplicitous ways with a false image that could fool their chosen targets.
Having judged people myself, while also being at the receiving end of the judgement of others, I know how frustrating it can be. There’s nothing more unfair than not being given a fair chance to prove ourselves and be pre-judged based on how we appear on the outside. It’s harsh, demeaning, and demoralizing. It chips away at a person’s soul. So, avoid doing it and replace judgement with curiosity. Understand that you’re dealing with a human who has a story that you can learn from.
Realize the fallacy of first impressions with these five reasons on why we should not ‘judge a book by its cover’:
1. People wear social masks: When Shakespeare claimed that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, he was referring to the theatrical nature of the social world where everyone chooses to play a role that they believe is acceptable by others. We withhold our true natures and construct personas that magnify our socially acceptable character traits, and play down the qualities that could be criticized and ridiculed. Thus, we wear a social mask to show only a thin layer of the totality of who we are. Remember that people reveal only what they want to, which is usually a polished and glamorous representation of their personality and life, both in the virtual and physical worlds.
2. We have a tendency to project our thoughts onto others: Another mental tendency that muddles up our judgement of others is ‘psychological projection’ – a defense mechanism that we use to deal with challenging emotions. When we lack self-awareness and haven’t taken steps to heal past wounds and insecurities, it leaks into our perspective of those around us. We’ll project undesirable feelings and unowned negative traits onto those who trigger us. For example, you may meet a girl who is slimmer than you and quickly categorize her as being too skinny. The reality may be that she works hard to stay fit and healthy. Your judgement was most likely born from a part of you that resents your inability to have that same kind of discipline.
3. We see only what we want to see: Everyone has a filter through which they evaluate the world. This filter is formed by a combination of education, personal upbringing, and experience. The specific beliefs that we develop about people are based on conclusions that we have drawn about them. People rarely take a step back and examine their existing constructs of others and search for evidence that could contradict them. Cognitive dissonance creates an innate drive to be right, and maintain consistency between our behavior and beliefs. If you were told by your family and friends that a particular type of person or group is dishonest and not be trusted, you would subconsciously avoid anyone you encounter who resembles that type.
4. People are complex beings with many layers to them: Whenever you feel tempted to form a premature opinion about someone based on their exterior, remind yourself that there is so much more to them that you do not know. Beneath the surface, there could be untold secrets, revolutionary ideas, and pearls of wisdom that are waiting to be shared. Their hopes, faith, and character have been shaped by moments of joy, as well as tragedies that may have caused them grief and strife. That’s why you can’t peg a person to particular ‘type’ – there are just so many layers to their personality that can only be understood when you talk to them and get to know them better without judgement and expectations.
5. You’ll give others the chance to be themselves and reveal their true selves: When you avoid assessing people based on their appearances, you essentially allow them to show you who they really are. This is considered to be a rare luxury in today’s fast-paced and self-centered world. It has a liberating effect on those who receive this gift. It will put people at ease, and they’ll find it easier to open up in the safe space that you provide. In truth, everyone covers up the confusion, emptiness, and insecurity that lies in deep recesses of their psyche because they don’t want to appear fragile and broken. But when you make it okay to reveal their humanity, you can see them in their completeness. This opens up the pathway to real intimacy, understanding, and trust.
Imagine a world where everyone willingly opened their hearts to each other. A world where people made an effort to obliterate all their prejudices and fear-based opinions of those who appear to be different. When people show this type of tolerance and compassion, our world will be enveloped by love, and sparkle with peace and harmony.
All my best on your journey,
Reflection Question: Do you have a tendency to judge people by their appearance? What steps are you willing to take to overcome this habit?
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