Adding this Social-In Column to the Library…
When we look at others, at ourselves, at specific things, do we see them as they are, or do we see what we want to see?
It’s an interesting question worth exploring, whether contemplating it for characters in a book or for your life. Unable to resist, I waded through it and concluded that we see different things in different ways, depending on when we’re looking and our emotional state at the time we’re looking.
Something that appeals to us today well might look garish or silly to us tomorrow—or even an hour from now. And something we thought was garish or silly can, from a different perspective, be quite beautiful. Have you ever treasured something for its sentimental value? Because it sparked a memory you treasure? Because it mentally transports you to another place or time and you want to visit that place again and feel now what you felt then, or to know now what you hadn’t known then?
Who or what we are looking at impacts our emotional reaction to what we’re seeing.
How we feel about that person, place or thing can be impacted by things totally unrelated to that person, as well. Doubt it? Well, have you ever associated someone you dislike to an inanimate object? Not liked it because you didn’t like the person it brought to mind? Had a thing or a place trigger a bad memory that makes you uncomfortable? Caused you to recall something you’d rather forget? Have you ever met someone who reminds you of someone else? Someone that you don’t like—for valid or invalid reasons—or, for a far stronger reaction, someone you fear?
In these cases, your reaction is innate, or learned from some past experience. Occasionally, you’ll make the connection immediately, but there are times when you don’t realize until much later that you’ve labeled this new person with the traits you disliked or feared in the other individual.
If we like someone, we tend to mentally minimize or ignore things they say or do that isn’t what we would say or do. We cut them more slack than we do people we don’t like or have negative feelings about. We also give more credibility to those we like. If we respect or admire a speaker, we give what they say more weight. We might not always agree with them, but we don’t feel as compelled to disagree with them.
On sight, we form a general impression of someone, and from that moment on, we are no longer objective. What we’ve observed colors our opinions to varying degrees on what the other person says, does, and even on their views. It also colors our emotional reaction to what is said and done.
In life and in writing, we study people. Their actions and others’ reactions to them. This is key in life in creating alliances, forming friendships and other relationships. For those reasons and for creating admirable characters (and characters others love to hate) the same holds true in writing.
Like in most things we study, we research, and part of my research has been in the form of experiments.
A Couple Experiments…
Study 1. I dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers. No makeup and hair a wreck–its usual state, through absolutely no fault of my beloved hairdresser, Dawn. I went to the mall and shopped for three hours. Not once did a sales person approach me in any of the four stores I visited. I carried packages in various size bags—several of them—to prove I was a serious shopper, but still received no offers of assistance in any of the four stores.
Study 2. A week later, I dressed in a soft cream-colored wool skirt and silk top, burgundy heels and a burgundy eel-skin handbag, did the makeup and hair (Dawn would have been proud–as soon as she recovered from the shock) and went to the same mall, to the same four stores for similar lengths of time. In the first two stores, I was approached by two sales associates within minutes of entering their departments. In the third store, one salesperson not only approached me but stayed close and offered to put anything I picked up in the dressing room to try on. In the fourth store, I had two sales persons at my beck and call the entire time I was in the store. Interestingly enough, I had no packages and made no purchases, but I had plenty of assistance.
One could conclude the way I looked was the only difference. But it goes deeper than that.
I don’t doubt that the sales associates viewed me differently, but perhaps some of that difference was in the way I viewed myself. I walked with more confidence—not afraid I’d run into someone who recognized me. Because I felt better about me, I expect I was a bit friendlier toward others, too. People sense these things, and sales associates have been sharply reprimanded regularly for saying, “May I help you?” They likely have a highly developed sixth sense about who to “bother” and who to leave alone.
My point is that others reacted differently toward me, but I carried myself and reacted differently toward them, too.
This wasn’t quite a Shakespeare’s mask—we do things wearing a mask we wouldn’t ordinarily do—but reversed, it ranked similar.
Study 3 Experiment
One morning, Dan, an employee, came into the office, whistling and happy.
During the course of the morning, another employee asked, “Dan, are you okay?”
“Sure,” he says.
“You’re a little pale.” She smiled. “It’s probably just me.”
An hour or so later, a third employee approached Dan to sign some papers. When he handed them back, this employee said, “Thanks, Dan. Hey, you feeling all right?”
“Yeah, sure. Why?” Dan asked. He wasn’t as certain as he had been earlier, and he wasn’t whistling.
“I thought you might be sick. Looks like you bleached your face, buddy.”
“No, I’m fine,” Dan said.
The guy shrugged. “Maybe I need to get my glasses checked.”
A couple hours later, a fourth employee interacted with Dan, who now wasn’t as happy as usual and that reflected in his sluggish behavior. “I don’t mean to intrude, Dan, but you don’t seem to be yourself today.”
“Pale, huh?” Dan asked.
She nodded. “A tad.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what it is. It’s been coming on all morning.”
At noon Dan went to his boss. “I’m going home.”
That’s the power of perception.
Dan came to work fine, but everyone else thought he looked sick and soon Dan’s perception and the way he saw himself changed. Everyone thought he was sick, so maybe he was sick. Their perception of him convinced him his own perception was flawed. A well man became sick.
Is this uncommon? Not at all. Happens often. We dress and someone says we look good, we feel great. Someone says a dress is too loose, a heel too high, a neckline too scooped and it changes our perspective—particularly if we like the person who said it. If we don’t like or respect their taste or style, what they say means less to us, but it still impacts the way we see ourselves.
We might disagree, but even in a dress we felt great in a few minutes earlier, we don’t feel as great in now.
Words have power. Others judge. We judge. Often we judge others and we judge the way they judge us.
This interweaving of character fabric is what makes people so interesting.
Even those who say they give no power to anyone to influence them do give others power to influence them. Why? They’re human, and it’s human nature.
It isn’t just someone else’s positive or negative feelings that influence us. That they have any influence with us, influences us.
We like to think of ourselves as strong individuals and unique ones, too. And we are. No one else is exactly the same because they haven’t lived an identical life to the one another has lived. And even if they had approached the exact same events as another, they would experience those events from a different perspective–their own.
And yet, to varying degrees, we are touched by others’ perceptions of us and by their reactions to our actions. Take the classic mother- and daughter-in-law relationship.
The mother wants her son to be happy and for the woman he chooses as a mate to be an admirable woman who will share a happy life, be a good wife to him and a good mother to their children. The daughter-in-law wants to be respected and admired and accepted.
It sounds so simple, and yet the horror stories of nightmarish relationships are legion. The results can be devastating or liberating. The costs high—and ones that are not worth paying, or ones you gladly pay to be free of the nightmare.
Others do exert influence even when we elect not to permit them to influence us. Take, for example, the divorced couple. They don’t interact personally, but they share children and in matters regarding them, the couple must interact.
How they share the children and their parental obligations is negotiated. But their futures are influenced by their pasts. When they’ll take vacations, and where they are legally able to take the children and go on vacations. What weekends or holidays will and will not be spent with their children. The marriage is over. The influence of the marriage remains.
How that is viewed depends on the relationship between the post-divorced couple. If they put the children first and work in harmony with what is best for them, then both are apt to be more accommodating. If not and bitterness and resentment remain, life will be decidedly more difficult—likely for the couple and their children.
We don’t tend to go out of our way to help those who hate us. We don’t typically put ourselves out for those who treat us badly or lie to others about what we say and do. That’s human nature, too.
So what conclusions have I drawn? How do I answer the initial question posed:
When we look at others, at ourselves, at specific things, do we see them as they are?
No, we don’t. We see them as we see them through our own filters: our perceptions, our emotional reactions to them, our preconceived notions on what we expect to see, our experience, expectations, and what we want to see (rose-colored glasses).
We see them the same way that they see us—as reflections.❦
© 2014, Vicki Hinze. Hinze is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of nearly thirty novels in a variety of genres including, suspense, mystery, thriller, and romantic or faith-affirming thrillers. Her latest release is Down and Dead in Dixie. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Theocentric Business and Ethics. Hinze’s online community: Facebook. Books. Twitter. Contact. www.vickihinze.com.