I was left to myself a couple of weekends ago when my wife took our daughters with her to Virginia for a visit with her dad. As I ambled around the empty house, on the first of those five days, I was free to do anything that I wanted. You’d think that I always have that freedom in my own home, but this felt a little different. I could lounge around in my underwear, or I could be mean to the cats without being seen, or I could pee in the sink if I felt the urge.
As I experienced those moments of furtive living, I knew that it wouldn’t last. We are social beings, so our desire for solitude is eclipsed by our need for community. But fulfilling that need comes with a price.
They’re watching us.
We don’t have to be celebrities to live our lives in the public eye. To some degree, we are all “out there”, especially if we engage in any type of social media. What used to be a passing thought is now a tweet, personal moments are shared on Facebook, and if we blog, there is no telling what we may reveal in a post.
Even if we live alone, people are watching every day when we leave our homes. Maybe not in the ominous way that I expressed in this tweet exchange with Tricia Ransom, but believe me, they are out there, watching us, just the same.
And as they watch, they judge.
We are judged by those close to us and strangers alike. How we dress, what we drive, and how we speak are just a few of the areas in which judging takes place. Think about the last time that you witnessed an unruly child. What opinion did you form about the parents? If you see a woman in a short skirt, is she being fashionable or slutty in your eyes? Which person are you more likely to stop and give directions to, a man in a suit or a teenage boy with a tattoo on his forehead?
The problem with making these sorts of judgments is that they are all driven by surface observations. The speculations we draw from them have no real basis in fact, but that doesn’t stop us from using this flawed and limited information to guide our responses.
We have to.
It’s impractical to expect otherwise. We don’t have the time or the means by which to investigate further, so we rely on what we have. Knowing this, each of us tries to influence the responses of people by showing ourselves as someone with whom they can relate.
This is why parents frown at some of the clothing choices of their children. It may not be right; it’s just the way it is. When looking for a job, we are advised how to dress for interviews. It’s a shallow basis to use for making employment decisions, but jobs are lost by inappropriate dress all of the time.
We all participate in this silly pretense.
Basing our judgments on appearance ensures that we will get it wrong at least as often as we get it right. We may think that we can glean something from the cues of dress, speech, and affability, but what we see and hear tells us next to nothing. The things that we can’t possibly see – what people do when they are alone – may allow us to draw a more incisive picture. In truth, we expect people to lie to us. It makes us feel safe.
But don’t get too comfortable.
Serial killers are usually good at seeming to be something that they are not. Also good at carrying out this deception: every person who has ever sat for an interview.