Hair pulled up in a haphazard ponytail, I tightened the drawstrings on my pink pullover and trekked through the wind up the stairs to the North Quad dining hall. Stomped, was more like it. I’d forgotten my headphones, and in no world was I walking back through this tumultuous wind on an empty stomach. Without my dining hall playlist, I had to provide myself with some sort of entertainment while eating 20 minutes away from my dorm. After grabbing a plate of questionably baked ziti, I plopped myself down at a seat beside two students, engaged in what appeared to be serious conversation. They were no Adele, but it would do.
“No, he’s definitely a chill guy. Probably in finance, a big gamer,” mused the guy with brown hair. He furrowed his brow all business-like, a stark contrast to his loose plaid pajama bottoms and disheveled hair. I imagined him trudging down the stairs from his room to grab a quick dinner with his friend before hunkering down for the night. His friend, sporting a buzz cut, looked at him incredulously, as though he had offered up the most absurd opinion.
“No, no, you’re confused. He’s one hundred percent Comp Sci. He totally thinks he’s gonna be the next Steve Jobs.”
Now it was my turn to furrow my brow. But alas, I kept my eyes on my baked ziti.
“Okay fine, whatever. How about that girl over there?” Pajama Bottoms flicked his head nonchalantly toward his right. “The one with the fancy blue shirt and glasses.”
What was going on? Thoroughly puzzled, I allowed my eyes to casually roam until they landed on the person of interest: silk blue blouse and Ray Bans, check.
“Ah…” Buzz Cut considered the girl for maybe two seconds before stating, matter-of-factly, “Her dad owns a major corporation, like Expo marker or something. She’s got it all covered.”
“Yeah, she totally spring breaks in the Hamptons,” Pajama Bottoms nodded emphatically.
My eyes widened in realization. This was some game they were playing, skipping their gaze across the room and envisioning personas, backstories. It seemed like Pajama Bottoms and Buzz Cut did this every day, putting their heads together and playing this loaded guessing game.
Upon an enthusiastic agreement, they let their eyes scan the room for another target. I very much hoped they wouldn’t start talking about the girl in the hot pink sweatshirt and the ratty, wind-agitated ponytail. I was content without knowing their opinion, so I finished off the ziti and excused myself.
Only after sitting in my bewilderment at the way Pajama Bottoms and Buzz Cut chose to spend their leisure time, listening to their outlandish topic of conversation mosey from person to person, did it hit me: I was doing the exact same thing. Pajama Bottoms and Buzz Cut were in-fact a product of my own appearance-based observations: two best friends who eat dinner together in North Quad and play a little assumptive guessing game every night. While I’d like to think I was doing it with a bit more decorum, I too was making the same unfounded generalizations about these two strangers.
I’m sure Buzz Cut and Pajama Bottoms were more than Buzz Cut and Pajama Bottoms: two odd friends who shared the same odd hobby. But that was all they were to me, and though this situation was nuanced, its realizations applied to more situations than I knew. By analyzing people at face value — without remaining open-minded to more information — we are doomed to the consequences of a misguided first impression. Whether we judge people in the brazen, almost ironic way that those two friends did, or in the more subconscious way that I allowed myself to do, we unintentionally (or intentionally) close ourselves off from seeing the bigger picture: which of our own insecurities we might be projecting, or how our social backdrop leads to the particular form our assumptions take on.
Sometimes, though, making snap judgements can be helpful. Perhaps there is an ominous figure heading your way at a 2:00 a.m. walk home from an impromptu Joe’s Pizza outing; I believe a snap-judgment and perhaps a quickening of pace would be appropriate here.
According to psychological development theorists, the subconscious manner in which people size up others is a key facet of survival and can definitely prevent people from getting stuck in a sticky situation. However, the unwarranted snap-judgment, the kind that happens without the present fear of danger, often originates from a place of personal insecurity.
Psychologists have concluded that we, as people, take into account factors such as facial expressions, body language, composure, clothing and communication to create parallels based on how we perceive such things. We then make the judgment. Pajama Bottoms and Buzz Cut simply had the guts, and the free time, to do it more brazenly. I had no problem judging those two individuals for how they presented themselves and what they chose to spend their time doing at 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday, but the second it occurred to me that I could be their next target for judgment, my tail shot between my legs.
I too was judging Buzz Cut and Pajama Bottoms, not just by making assumptions about them, but by deciding that they were strange, and frankly a bit unhinged, for doing the same thing that I and countless others do subconsciously. Who was I to call them odd?
When forming first impressions, people tend to subconsciously assess others based on their own personal guidelines of acceptance or rejection. Analyses of the human psyche suggest that since we as humans are prone to consider our own judgment and perspective to be fact, we unintentionally create a divide between us and other people. If every person traipses around and considers their unsupported and oft-skewed perceptions as innately true, it makes the prospect of a true connection nearly impossible.
Our upbringing and experiences cause us to evaluate peoples’ potential roles in our lives based on superficial criteria and brief experiences that, often, don’t lend themselves to the full picture. Said criteria can stem from family values, childhood environment or level of education received. Regardless of what motivates people to draw conclusions about others (usually with a weak basis), the conclusion remains that our judgements ultimately deter us from seeing the reality beyond ourselves, realities that, metaphysically, we cannot fully know.
This phenomenon of viewing a person’s actions or the way they conduct themselves during a moment in time as a key indicator of who they are (rather than the circumstances they are in) is commonly referred to as the fundamental attribution error. Based on the way we were raised to perceive things, we may attribute traits, positive or negative, to people who may not necessarily fit this mold. Since it is impossible to know the full extent of another person’s being, it is most convenient for people to take a brief glimpse into another’s personhood and consider it to be “indicative of who they really are” rather than merely circumstantial.
This is a pretty damning rut to be stuck in. Through this cycle of passive judgment that so many of us are condemned to, we lose sight of the multi-faceted nature of “truth” and are far less empathetic and open-minded to other people’s realities. Luckily, this nature of rapid-fire assumptions and evaluations is something that can be rectified.
Just as I feared others judging me based on a single moment or experience, it’s important to make conscious efforts to avoid placing this judgment onto others as well. A way to undermine this cyclical pattern is to replace assumptions about other people with the assumption that we do not have enough information about anyone else to assess them; the information that we think we have is not necessarily correct. In order to change the predispositions that we so naturally form about others, it’s vital that we “consider that a lot of what we perceive and assume is for the most part, wrong.”
With these ideas in mind, it seems as though my own mindset was worse than Pajama Bottoms and Buzz Cut; at least they were consciously aware that their assumptions were absurd and not factual (I hope). I, on the other hand, was quick to judge and form presuppositions about these veritable strangers. My assumptions held no more weight than their far-fetched guesses and musings.
In essence, try to avoid being alarmed if you see a student donning pajama bottoms engaged in fervent discourse with a guy fashioning a buzz-cut; just because I had an odd experience with these characters doesn’t mean I’ll have another. Buzz Cut and Pajama Bottoms aren’t always Buzz Cut and Pajama Bottoms; their hair will grow out, or perhaps they’ll invest in stylistic refinement. There is much more to them, and all of us, than a circumstantial first impression. Maybe next week they’ll be into Sudoku.
Statement Columnist Irena Tutunari can be reached at email@example.com.