Today I visited a store where I often shop. The young man who cleans up and maintains the displays was there as usual, with a sullen expression on his face. My story about him is that he’s lazy and unfriendly, and does his best to do as little work as possible. Yet, I see him often. So today, I walked over to him and introduced myself.
His face lit up, he got a huge smile, and gave me his name. Suddenly, my whole conception changed. He didn’t seem sullen, lazy, and unfriendly at all. It struck me that he’s quite possibly shy, and given his job, ignored by virtually everyone who comes in. Far from wanting to drive people away, he wants to connect and be acknowledged. But my misreading his cues made me stay part of the problem until today.
A friend reported something similar after doing an exercise where he had to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Though he was in his 40s, the first person he found to talk to was a teenager who was present at a summer school program. He was astounded to discover how interesting this teenager was. Then he realized with a shock that his son was the same age, and he’d never talked to his son as a person, but always as “his son.”
Our preconceptions can help us. If they’re accurate, they can let us step right into a situation with a great deal of information. But they can also blind us to what’s really going on. The young man at the store was friendly and shy, not sullen and hostile. The teenage son is a whole person with a rich inner life, not simply a child to be disciplined or controlled. By double-checking our assumptions about other people, we sometimes find that things are very different than we think.
- Find someone you don’t like. Talk to them and learn about them.
- Find someone you’d never normally approach and talk to. Talk to them.
See what happens. The results may surprise you–or not.