We Judge More Than Books by Their Cover

By | December 11, 2017

It’s early afternoon and I just deplaned at the Newark Airport. I have three hours to kill until my short flight to Boston thanks to a last minute change in my itinerary. I have options how I spend this time but as I sit here in the gate area I find I am enthralled with the comings and goings of all the people.

Apart from the variety of dress and appearances, the different ethnicity and languages/accents I’m hearing, the range of ages and discernible emotions, there is also an assortment of purposes and stories or so it seems. For instance there are the families with small, very tired, very cranky children in tow just arrived from a flight while other families seem almost giddy with excitement as I imagine them anticipating their travels to some distant place to begin their summer vacation. Also present for the moment are those individuals literally running, running late, dodging left and weaving right around, past and through those in less of a hurry. I wonder, were these frantic travelers held up by unforeseen events or are they among those who are habitually late to everything?

Then there are the older couples, some now frail due to their advancing age or an illness that nonetheless appear to take things in stride while others of their generation seem lost and confused as if they’ve not flown much in their lifetime. And though it is a Sunday one can easily spot the business travelers, though not so much from their dress as from what they carry and because they are traveling alone. These individuals, like myself, need to be somewhere first thing on Monday.

One also spots all the young people and the random adult with the music of their IPOD blotting out the din that otherwise surrounds them. Several of the young people are wearing college t-shirts representing one school or another. Might they be home for the summer or is their adult identity still bound up in where they went to school? And of course there are the young couples perhaps headed off on their honeymoons that are very much oblivious to anything but one another. Also among the crowd is the occasional young man or young woman in our Nation’s uniform. Where might they have been and where are they headed next?

Moving to and fro among them are those who work in the airport – either taking care of the maintenance and appearance of the facility, or perhaps they work in one of the shops or eateries. For instance, I see a young man, I would guess in his early 20s, tattooed and sporting a mohawk. He is pushing a cart of supplies destined for the restaurant near me. To my left is a long line of people waiting to get their Starbucks fix. There, the young woman behind the counter is laughing and smiling with each customer while at another nearby stand there is a cashier who looks like she would rather be anyplace but here. What might their stories be? Rounding out our cast of characters are the airline employees including ground crew, flight attendants, pilots and customer service agents along with the now ever present, usually stern-faced TSA agents. What stories I imagine for each of them.

Actually, each of these individuals has a story of their own that helps to explain what brought them here today and that is governing where they will be in a few short hours. Every time I pause to study one of these individuals whose path has somehow intersected mine I almost automatically begin ascribing qualities and values to them. For that is what most (all) of us do. We are quick to assess others at a single glance based upon what they wear, their grooming, how they move, their language, accent and mannerisms. And most of the time, we are way off.

I’ve heard it said that 90% of what we think we know about others is wrong. Still, we make up stories about them, assign motives to what they do based upon the tiniest sliver of evidence and our own tapes of past experiences. In effect, we judge people as well as books by their cover. But if I took the time to engage with any of these fellow travelers might my views (opinions) of them changed? My guess is it would.

Some would change for the better, a few for the worse. For example I recently met a bright, attractive, energetic young woman who let it slip during the course of our conversation that her husband was dealing with a major illness. I never would have guessed that about her from her demeanor. And there is the young man I know who always has a smile on his face, a good word to say and a joke to share. I like him just for that. But he also has a place on my “People I Most Admire” list for you see he and his wife are raising severely disabled twin boys. One would never guess that about him from his remarkable and indefatigable spirit.

On the flip side, I was recently paired with several business-types in a golf outing. One of them, a young man who I gathered is well thought of by his organization had a vocabulary that was awash with four letter words. I wondered, does he use that language in the work place, in front of clients and/or in the presence of his children? I don’t think I am a prude nor am I free of the occasional lapse into such language myself. However, he and I had never met and what I saw of (heard from) him that afternoon (the cover and a random chapter) left me not wanting to read the balance of the book. In that context, this could easily be about the value of first impressions. But I would prefer to turn the tables and look at the risk you and I take when we judge others too quickly.

Let’s face it: what you and I see on the surface or in a first encounter rarely tells the story of what lies beneath. To learn that, we need to read a few chapters as well as the Table of Contents, not just the title and cover art. That is, we need to engage others in some meaningful way if we are to know what sort of a person they really are. So the next time you are quick to judge, keep in mind that:

1. It really is best to read a couple of chapters before making up your mind; and.
2. Others are likely passing judgment on you too.

Keith Hughey is a management consultant with over thirty years of experience in helping client organizations solve problems and improve performance. Based in San Antonio, Texas, his work with client organizations focuses on helping them to better leverage their peoples’ time and talent. Specifically, he helps clients get the best thought, effort, creativity, commitment and teamwork from their people in order to improve organizational results. Keith is an accomplished facilitator, working with organizations of all sizes in the areas of organizational design, strategic planning, leadership development, team building and problem solving. He is the author of the widely read weekly e-letter, Monday Morning Musings. For information about his services you may contact him at 210-260-0955 or by writing to him at keith@jkeithhughey.com. You may also visit his web site: http://www.jkeithhughey.com to learn more about the nature of his services, for a list of clients, to sign up for Musings or to read any of the previous issues of his commentaries.

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