A longer post with a little activity for you to try…see what you think!
I wrote this blog sitting on a plane…trying to create a great example of what I am writing about. Only after I spent time type, type, typing away, did I realize I did not have to look that far.
I had finally found my seat (window, thankfully!). I put my earphones in without turning on any music…to avoid speaking with anyone (yes, that is something I do). A woman and her male companion sat next to me, I noticed her – how she dressed, little make-up, not too trendy (mom jeans, to be honest). When we got the loud notice to turn off all electronic devices that have an on-off switch, she turned to me and asked if I had turned off my phone. I immediately felt a small bristle, but answered nicely, “Yes, thanks.” But, my first thought was, “Wow, she’s bossy!”
This situation was ripe with assumptions and a lack of information – she was responding to what looked like (possibly) an irresponsible or rebellious passenger who disobeyed flight instructions and I responded to someone who does not dress like I do and stuck her nose in my business. We both example something that study after study shows: we attribute others’ characteristics to who they are and give ourselves the padding to be right and not at fault = the other passenger’s actions are about her as a person (bossy).
There is a term in psychology called the fundamental attribution error. (Fundamental = basic; attribution = characteristic or trait; error = mistake).
Here, you try. Note your first thoughts here: no reason to try and be an angel of humanity that defies natural response…its only you and your computer.
The first picture – would you let this man keep your children? Would you be okay with his walking you home on a cold, dark night? This is the actor Aaron Eckhart in his role as George in the movie Erin Brockovich.
The second picture – Be honest…what did you think when you saw it? Spooky? Drug addict? Evil? You have recognized her…the character Lisbeth Salandar from the wildly popular The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo novel trilogy by Stieg Larrson. If you have read the book (I definitely recommend!) you know this character has a rich history and there is more to her than her initial, strange appearance. This is a picture of Swedish actress Noomi Rapace without her Salandar make-up.
This third picture…a laughable reminder of what we all fell for: Joquin Phoenix as a dissheveled actor who obviously had a breakdown…a shadow of his former handsome and luring self…most of us remember him as Johnny Cash opposite Reese Witherspoon in the movie Walk The Line. Here is a picture of him now…after he announced that the whole thing was a rouse, all portrayed in the new documentary I’m Still Here.
Yes, I used pop-culture examples, accessible to most of us. And I focused on thoughts based on appearance and basic media information. This is something we do in our everyday lives, with the people we know and love, with the people we do not know and/or would rather not love.
So how does this apply to friendships? Definitely, as you get to know someone, you know more of who they are and more of their actual attributes.
For instance, my close friends know that I am quieter and less likely to speak up when I have an opinion; they know that I struggle with time management and beat myself up over small things. They know I get crabby and irritable when I am hungry; they know I like myself and don’t mind spending time alone. These are all things that fall into my delightful personality, but could definitely be misunderstood or misinterpreted (as my earbuds were on the plane, although giving a certain impression).
One of my best friends told me that the first time we met I hardly said three words at the party and all she had heard was great things about me…leaving her to wonder, “What’s so great about her?” (Ha! Little did she know!!) Anyways…my not talking less was equivalent to her idea of boring. She is one of my extraverted friends, who I think sometimes could stand to stop, look and listen a bit. See? We fit together but could definitely be misunderstood without necessary information.
But we never fully know, and even with people we know and love, we often give ourselves more room for mistakes (yes, even perfectionists do this) than we do others…and we move mistakes to our outside world (e.g. a bad day) while others are simply and characteristically at fault (e.g. my plane companion = bossy person). Essentially, we find explanations where we look for them and fit pieces together in our minds; we explain other people according to their appearance and actions.
We instinctively evaluate others – by their size, beauty, attire, possessions, tone of voice, status, mom-jeans, earbuds, etc. We all do it, and we all do it without even thinking. As Jonalyn offered, many times we elevate others above ourselves in categories we wish we were better; we use others to evaluate ourselves.
Other times though, we elevate ourselves above others without most of the necessary information we need to make an accurate
conclusion. So while we all want the benefit of the doubt, room to give an explanation or make a mistake…we do not do this first.
To me, in friendship, this can be quite damaging…this fundamental attribution error. This thing we do is ripe full of assumptions (we all know about assumptions…when you assume you make…) and happens quickly. You might recognize this from being on the hurtful side, your attributes decided by someone lacking critical information. You might have befriended someone who displayed positive and welcoming characteristics, only to find out that friendly on the outside does not always mean friendly on the inside.
With regard to friendship, something we could all take into consideration. Although studies do show we make judgments quickly and naturally; it is possible that a bit of information could change our minds and add a person or two to our lives. Talk over coffee, listen a bit, verify details, ask a few questions.
p.s. We went on a walk a few days after the party and the rest is friendship history. We are two peas in a pod, and still often miscalculate one another because we are different.