a matter of perception
June 23, 2020 9:31 AM   Subscribe

How differently can two people perceive the same person and why? Not chatfilter (I hope) - the question comes of a specific event which has now been tickling my brain for several days.

What happened was my friend and myself, while paying for some items, were having a conversation with the cashier. The exchange was the usual sort of neutral small talk one makes with strangers, and absolutely nothing else. Afterwards, I said I thought the cashier was nice but kind of reserved and slightly sardonic, and very much did not care for me personally, although polite throughout the interaction. My friend, when I mentioned this, said in surprise that he didn't find the cashier to be anything but very nice and very friendly, not reserved or sardonic at all, and certainly hadn't behaved in a way to indicate dislike towards either one of us. I am wondering if this very different perception of the same person in the same moment is due to how we absorb new information based on our old experiences and beliefs? My friend is a born optimist. I am, um, not. I guess in the end the only person who could say what they were really thinking is the cashier. But in life it is not possible to extract everyone's exact true thoughts from them, one is left instead with one's interpretation, as it were, of that person. So in the end my question is, how does one perceive people more as they are, and less as what one thinks they are?
posted by Crystal Fox to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have had several experiences with my husband where we’ve been interacting in a retail or service situation and the person will be super friendly and helpful to us but will only look my husband in the eye or address him. Even when answering a question I’ve asked! It took awhile for him to notice because the person is being so friendly and accommodating to him. But the person getting zero eye contact is noticing.

I notice and am sensitive to all the ways that I’m taken slightly less seriously or respectfully in situations where it feels like I’d be getting all the respect and positive-neutral attention if I had a penis somewhere on my person. Confirmation bias is also a factor. I notice this more than situations where everything goes great.

Micro-aggressions and subtle shifts in tone and demeanor are easily picked up. But we give more importance to our feelings on the interaction than some greater objective truth. We can’t always know why someone is a little cold to us and not the next person. And we don’t often see how people are to others when it’s subtle because of prioritizing our own experience.
posted by amanda at 9:52 AM on June 23 [19 favorites]


Well, there is the famous "gorilla walking through the group of folks passing a baketball" and nobody who watches the film notices.

And then there's the passage of time study where it was shown that the brain discards routine information (triage if you will) except when you get into a crisis and then it keeps every shard of data, and so on reflection you think a great deal of time must have passed.

And lets not even get into criminal witnesses or juries.
posted by forthright at 10:10 AM on June 23 [4 favorites]


I am a sensitive and perceptive person. Sometimes this makes me a great barometer of things oth&c. er people might not notice, like micro-aggressions, clueless classist comments, and so on. Other times, because I also have some residual insecurity despite years of excellent, productive therapy, it means I take offense or feel judged or think someone seemed excessively curt when they weren't.

I have a partner who also perceptive but who isn't inclined to think people are being rude or whatever. I find it really useful to ask him for what we call a "perception check." Was that checkout clerk rude? Did that comment have a judgmental subtext? &c.

Hearing his perspective helps me adjust my own. He's not always right, and I don't simply adopt his take on things instead of my own. We have a conversation about it, which helps me calibrate and clarify my reactions.

So, yes, it is very possible for people to have different understandings of an incident like the one you describe, and it can be useful to consider those different understandings.
posted by Orlop at 10:39 AM on June 23 [6 favorites]


how does one perceive people more as they are, and less as what one thinks they are?

A lot more familiarity - with the person, their life, their personality and baselines and reactions; with all the different cultures and subcultures and cognitive and emotional realities that might be relevant to the situation; with your own reactions and moods and tendencies in judgment and pattern-matching.

And even then the best you can ever do is an educated guess.
posted by trig at 10:55 AM on June 23 [4 favorites]


how does one perceive people more as they are, and less as what one thinks they are?

By learning that very few things in life are personal. You can do an exercise!

Afterwards, I said I thought the cashier was nice but kind of reserved and slightly sardonic, and very much did not care for me personally, although polite throughout the interaction.

1. What happened that made you think the cashier did not care for you personally? Write down every single comment or behavior that led you to that conclusion.

2. Now list alternative explanations for every single comment and behavior.

3. Ask yourself if those other explanations are plausible. If they are, you were probably mistaken.

For example, maybe the cashier was frowning. What that because they did not care for you personally or because they were maybe tired from standing or sitting or just got a shitty text?

I used to take everything personally but eventually, thanks to Al-Anon and a bunch of therapy, I realized that mostly I am not that important to strangers and, often, not even family members. I am not the piece of shit the world revolves around (as some say in AA). People tend to be busy, tired, vulnerable, shy, neurodiverse (like me) or a bunch of other things that may be happening near me but do not necessarily have anything to do with me.

That is a handy thing to remember if I start to take an interaction personally. Over time, my default has mostly moved from pessimistic and being quick to think, "I did something wrong and/or they hate me" to more neutral and thinking, "It's probably not about me." If it was about me and a stranger didn't like the cut of my jib, well, so what? I am fabulous and I bet you are, too.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:09 AM on June 23 [34 favorites]


Bella Donna's point also reminds of the importance of knowing about different biases and distortions that we in general are prone to, like the Fundamental Attribution Error.
posted by trig at 11:14 AM on June 23 [4 favorites]


I am wondering if this very different perception of the same person in the same moment is due to how we absorb new information based on our old experiences and beliefs?

Absolutely. And it's not something that people can fully get away from. It's part of being human. But also being part of human is the capacity for self-reflection.

how does one perceive people more as they are, and less as what one thinks they are?

I think this requires practicing -- as much as you can -- self-awareness, openness (maybe even vulnerability), time with the person, and, yes, optimism, or at least giving the benefit of the doubt until you no longer can. You could absolutely be correct that the cashier acted slightly differently towards you than your friend. They may even have come off, entirely accurately, as nice but sardonic and/or reserved. But there could be a lot of reasons for that. Maybe to the cashier you look just like someone they didn't like, and couldn't get that person out of their mind. Maybe your manner of speaking reminded them of someone they have a crush on who has a sardonic sense of humor, and subconsciously behaved as if they were speaking to that person. Maybe the cashier remembers you from a couple months ago and, from their perspective, didn't have a great interaction with you, and you don't even remember it. So many possibilities, and the only thing you really can do is be open to any of those possibilities being true, until time allows you to discard the ones that aren't.
posted by odin53 at 11:16 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]


One of the key ways to do this imo is to listen others' experiences about that person. I don't think there's a hack that can allow us to, in the moment, see precisely what a person is. I do think that we can have motivated reasons for seeing behaviors a certain way, I do not think we can completely overcome those things.

In a case like you present here, you may have a lot of legitimate experiences that suggests that the cashier's behavior was in fact negative towards you. Your friend hasn't had that experience, and so didn't pick up on the details.

I think there's often gendered elements to these kinds of situations, as well — most men are not socialized to pick up on the same cues that women are; women often need to pick up on subtler things for their own safety.

So, yeah, I think thinking through each of your reactions and talking about it and understanding why each of you responded the way you did won't get you closer to Truth, but will help you contain the multitude of possibilities, which is all you can achieve most of the time! For me it's less about seeing people as they are and more about recognizing the possible distance between your perception of them and reality.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:03 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I agree with the others that both of you are jumping to conclusions here, neither of you were close to perceiving "the person". Instead both of you perceived a small number of social cues given out by the person in this particular context, and made assumptions based on those cues and your prior experience. People will never perceive all of the cues someone put out, so it is completely possible that your friend missed out on perceiving the cues that you interpreted as sardonic, because they were thinking about something else or looking away. So then you and your friend then took this small bucket of cues and, using your own personalities, estimated who "the real person" is. This is an extremely difficult thing to do and our brains do the best they can, but we're always going to make mistakes in our assessments.

I'm honestly not sure it's possible for humans to see other people "as they are", but it's definitely possible to learn what parts of our view of someone else are coming from them and what parts are coming from our past, by reflecting over many assessments. With this knowledge, you can know when to really trust your assessment, and when you should be skeptical of your opinion.
posted by JZig at 12:05 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


You say " only person who could say what they were really thinking is the cashier" but they may not know either. The cashier might not have been conscious of what they were feeling or expressing. (E.g. think of all the people unaware of their own racism.) In fact there isn't a "what they were really thinking" in general. People are much more complicated than can be so simply captured by language.

You might ask if experiencing the rudeness of others toward you is common, in which case there is likely an element of projection (or you are of a cultural class that is routinely treated rudely.)

On preview, what JZig said.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:09 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]


I guess in the end the only person who could say what they were really thinking is the cashier.

Whether there is an objective truth as to what they were really thinking is not cut and dry.

Even the cashier might not have a good insight into it. It's very possible to subconsciously dislike someone, and act that way, without ever bringing it to mind explicitly. People do this all the time; they are more reserved with one person, or more flirty with another, and just don't realize. It can be implicit bias or something else, and it might not actually be possible to dredge it up out of one's subconscious even retroactively.
posted by BungaDunga at 12:13 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


There are so many reasons you all could perceive this interaction differently. For example, perhaps you grew up in different areas where social norms for interactions with strangers are a bit different, so you have slightly different standards. Perhaps the person made more eye contact with your friend. Perhaps your friend reminded them of someone they know. Some people are naturally more judgmental and negative and might be less inclined to give strangers the benefit of the doubt.

But I do want to mention a cognitive distortion called personalization. It's interesting that you went from reserved and sardonic to ... they did not like you. Because reserved could mean they were tired, they are shy, they were thinking about dinner, etc. It's a huge jump to go from a casual interaction with a stranger to thinking that the person disliked you. It could have been that the person was having a bad day, and you sensed it, but it had nothing to do with you.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:15 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]


So in the end my question is, how does one perceive people more as they are, and less as what one thinks they are?

Very simply? Know thyself. The more familiar you are with what filters you apply and when the easier it becomes to put them aside and see what’s really in front of you.

Not that it helps a lot with people, as they have their own perception of who they are that often doesn’t match all that well with reality.

There is an objective reality but none of us live in it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:26 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Often this is cultural. My partner and I were just talking about someone we both know, and I was like "I don't think he likes me, he never seems excited to talk to me and never checks in with how I'm doing." My partner, from the same culture as the person, was like "Oh no, that would be rude if he asked you about your feelings without you volunteering them first. He likes you a lot!"
posted by corb at 9:35 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]


There are a lot of cultural differences in how people express liking, happiness, etc.

This is very US-centric, but there are even differences between different regions of the US in how these things are expressed (and in different social backgrounds, religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, etc). Not just language, but also things like how far apart you stand from someone else. So don't assume that there are no cultural differences just because you are from the same country.

how does one perceive people more as they are, and less as what one thinks they are?

This is pretty much impossible. There is no one objective truth about how someone "is".

Also, if you are interacting with someone who is paid to interact with you (like, for example, a cashier), if you are in a culture where people in that job are expected to be friendly, one cannot extrapolate from a short friendly encounter that the person actually likes you.
posted by yohko at 4:17 PM on June 25


My friend is a born optimist. I am, um, not.

So in the end my question is, how does one perceive people more as they are, and less as what one thinks they are?

These two lines from your question together made me wonder if there's another question to be asked, that being: How do you want to perceive people?

As others have pointed out, and indeed you, it is impossible to know why a stranger reacts a certain way to you, and they may not understand that fully even themselves.

Knowing this, and knowing that how one perceives such an encounter can vary enormously and influence your daily experience, you might decide that you no longer wish to "not be an optimist", and perceive interactions through a negative light, and carry the feelings from that around with you.

You might decide that you want to see things differently. This might look like, when someone frowns at you while you wait at a crossing, thinking, gosh they are concentrating hard today - I wonder what they're thinking about! Rather than something more pessimistic.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt, fostering curiosity and empathy in your imagining of other people and their worlds and their behaviours, can be a really strong tool to improve your day to day life. Ask yourself what benefit the pessimistic approach holds for you? Are you afraid of being let down by people, or laughed at for assuming the best? If so - explore those feelings, with a professional if you want to and can.
posted by greenish at 9:05 AM on June 29


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