We are not what we seem

People-watching in restaurants is something of a pastime for me: they are pretty fascinating places and there is lots going on between and within people. I am fascinated by the unconscious mind that operates out of our awareness but makes itself known by what we do and feel in all sorts of interesting ways. What we do is often more symbolic of who we are that what we say. So, here we were last week in a pub in a little town on the east coast of New Zealand having an evening meal and a lovely glass (or several) of pinot gris, which is by itself reason enough to travel across ‘the ditch’: fantastic wine.

The waitress looked to be about 35, was a little overweight and had a very pretty face. Her blonde hair was tied back in a pigtail that became a pendulum as she walked, with a slight limp, between the tables. Her black waitress outfit was outlined with a lace fringe at the neckline and her pearl necklace and earrings completed the image. But below the hem of her long dress was an ornate tattoo around her leg just above the ankle. I also couldn’t help noticing the slightly forced smile: there was nothing spontaneous about it at all. It was a wonderful contrast and I couldn’t help but wonder about her story. Sadly, there’d be no way of knowing.

We are all more than one person, aren’t we? The facade we offer the world is often only a part of who we are. The waitress might need to offer this outward appearance of conservatism in order to keep her job in a world in which being outrageous would not be good for custom. She might look the way she looks to make sure that she attracts only a particular type of attention (or not to be noticed at all) and ensure that she be treated in a certain way. Then there are her other, probably more important, faces. The tattoo might indicate another part in which convention is abandoned and the blonde hair is allowed to cascade free across her shoulders. There may be other parts but we can only know if we get to see more of her behaviour in different contexts.

One of the things I have learnt in around 40 years messing around in the world of psychology is to overcome the natural urge to make instant judgements about people I meet. It is quite normal for us to make conclusions about people in only a few seconds. Unfortunately, when we have made decisions about someone and their motives in these few seconds of evidence, these decisions become very difficult to budge and they can determine our behaviour towards them for all time. This can have all sorts of consequences such as trusting someone that we shouldn’t and distrusting someone that we should. It can mean not allowing ourselves to get to know someone who could become a friend. Judgements by bosses of their staff can be particularly damaging and are often based, in my experience, on very poor evidence.

So, two questions for you. What are your parts and how do you transmit them to others? Do we give people time to let us know who they are before we make judgement?

Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.


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