There are always those people who swear up and down that they would never, ever judge a person based on his or her appearance. But the fact is, all people judge one another’s look at some time or another—some just do it more often (and more openly) than others.
Kids Will Be Kids
There’s a classic sociology experiment where examiners present child-age test subjects with pictures of other children—one picture of a slim child, the other of an overweight child. The children being tested are asked which child they’d rather be friends with. Most kids choose the slim child as their new pal. Their reasons include opinions that simply can’t be derived as fact from a photo, such as the overweight child isn’t as smart or as nice as his trim counterpart.
As noble as it is to claim that you never judge others’ appearances, it’s very difficult to carry through on that promise. Simply becoming aware of the ways you judge other people is a good first step toward minimizing the effects of your preconceptions.
Unfortunately, attitudes concerning appearance don’t magically disappear as kids mature. Adults can be absolutely merciless when judging one another’s appearances, and in some circles, picking apart friends and acquaintances is nothing less than an obsession. But what’s the difference between judging a person’s general appearance and judging his body language? Appearances are deceiving.
Let’s go back to the experiments using the pictures of overweight children … but let’s fast-forward twenty years. Research has shown that adults tend to view their overweight peers as being unintelligent, lazy, and unhygienic.
“So what?” you ask. “They must be lazy, or else they’d be thin. And anyone who can’t figure out how to lose weight must be dumb. I don’t want to work on a project with anyone who’s lazy and dumb because it’ll make my life harder.” Do you see how these judgments create negative scenarios? Your heavy coworker might be the hardest-working and most intelligent person in your office, but because you’ve already judged his personality based on his appearance, it’s going to be that much harder for you to read any of his nonverbal cues in a positive light.
You can’t accurately evaluate someone’s body language if you’ve already assigned him negative characteristics based on his appearance. That’s like trying to look through a window after you’ve smudged it with grease and dirt.
Shy Guys (and Girls)
If you’re insecure about the way you look, it will definitely show in your body language. You’ll avoid making eye contact, you won’t stand tall, you won’t smile at other people, you’ll make sure never to touch others … in short, you won’t be putting out any sort of positive message. People may perceive your shyness as a lack of interest in them or as out-and-out snobbishness.
Back in the 1990s, researchers at the College of New Rochelle conducted a study of nurses’ attitudes toward their patients in the hope of uncovering hidden prejudice. The surprising result: attitudes were most negative toward white, obese patients. The not-so-surprising finding was that the nurses’ beliefs negatively affected the care their obese patients received.
This chapter won’t go any further into the psychology of how judging others’ appearances affects you and them, but it does happen—it affects your daily interactions, and if you really want to know the people around you (and you want them to know you), you have to look below the surface. This is sometimes easier to do if you understand the difference between arrogant gestures, friendly overtures, and insecure behaviors.
Don’t Take It Personally
There are several medical conditions that can cause what’s called a “flat affect” of the face, which simply means that the facial muscles are impaired. You won’t see joy, anger, or surprise expressed in this person’s face. What you will see is something of a blank stare with no emotion attached to it. There are other conditions (including the after-effects of plastic surgery) that can cause a person’s facial expressions to be distorted so that he appears to be smiling even though he isn’t happy.
Imagine you’re on your way into the supermarket and you accidentally run right into a customer who’s walking out. He drops his packages and the contents come spilling out. You’re mortified and spring into action, scooping up grapefruits with one hand while juggling the paper towels and eggs in the other. When you’ve placed all of the items back into their packages, you tell the person how sorry you are. This stranger just stares at you, mumbles a quick “thanks,” and goes on his way. You feel angry that he wasn’t more appreciative of your efforts to right your wrong. Some people would allow this kind of interaction to influence their future behavior by vowing not to help strangers anymore, for example.
Misunderstandings can occur when you come face to face with a stranger who’s unable to express emotion or does so in an inappropriate way. You might misinterpret his lack of emotion as indifference or even hostility.
As important as it is to know how to read nonverbal cues, it’s as important to understand that what you see isn’t always what you get—and even if you are on the receiving end of a blank stare or a frown, sometimes it’s nothing personal. That’s why it’s also important to put nonverbal cues into some type of context before evaluating them—so that you avoid jumping to conclusions.