The Power of Perception, Part I

I think I embarrassed a friend last night.

It’s ironic to me that I should do that now, because that is something that I worried about entirely too much when I met this person.  The friend would assure me—repeatedly—that that was not the case, until finally I believed it.  For the most part, I still do.  But it seems I may have overstepped myself on this occasion.

The part that bothers me is not that it happened (although to the person involved: I am sorry).  It isn’t even the thing that caused the embarrassment.  No, what bothers me most is that I didn’t realize it at first.  It was a while before I caught on to what I had done.  When I did, I was mortified; but I should have caught it right away.  Somehow, I missed it.

I took steps to correct what I’d done, as best I could, so as to spare this friend any further potential embarrassment.  And before I begin to get any lectures for being worried about what is, essentially, an appearance, let me just say that I did it because I care about this person, not because I care about anyone’s opinion of me.  When someone is close to you, you don’t think about whether they should or should not feel a certain kind of pain or embarrassment (or…name any negative emotion); you just want the best for that person—which, in this case, meant sparing them that particular piece of trouble.  At any rate, I corrected my mistake as much as possible…then I sat down to figure out why this whole situation bothered me so much.

This same friend and I had a conversation just three days ago about the matter of perception.  The friend made the point that perception was a very important matter to them (I’m trying hard to be non-specific as to who this is; the person involved will know, but that’s good enough).  I said that perception is important to all of us; that we all worry about how we are perceived, but with regard to different things.  The friend then asked me what my “thing” was; I said that I want to be perceived as intelligent and funny.    To that, though, I would add this today:  I don’t want to be perceived as socially inept or awkward, or backward.  Now, I was born and raised in West Virginia, which is not widely considered to be a sophisticated part of the world; and when I moved away in my mid-twenties, I found that that was a stigma I carried with me elsewhere.  I love my home, and I know that there are intelligent and forward-thinking, sophisticated people there as much as anywhere else; but still, it remains—and it doesn’t help that so many of the people who are visibly representing my state (in the sense of the media, not the legislature) are walking, talking, redneck stereotypes.  So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that I have a problem with being perceived in that socially inept and awkward way—and that is precisely the image I was projecting when I embarrassed my friend last night, even if unintentionally.

Perception really is everything.  That only makes sense, if we think about it; the only way we can know anything about anyone is through the window of our perception of them.  If I perceive you to be an intelligent person, then everything I “know” about you is filtered through that framework.  It’s natural, even if it sometimes is misused (as in, say, racism—a perception that is grossly wrong with regard to people carrying certain physical characteristics).  We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that we automatically turn it back on ourselves; that is, we try to manage the way others perceive us.

Like every tool we humans use, perception can be used for good or evil.  I think that honesty is the key.  What I mean by this is, inevitably we try to shape others’ perception of us; but we can do it in an honest or a dishonest way.  The dishonest way, of course, is to try to present an image that we don’t live out—to be someone we’re not.  The honest way, then, is to BECOME someone we are not.  There’s a fine line here, too; you don’t want to change for the wrong reason.  You don’t want to become what someone else thinks you should be, just because you want that person’s attention or affection or approval.  No, you want to become something better than what you were, because you believe it is the right or best thing to do—in essence, you want to improve yourself.  How you do that is, of course, up to you.

So, to my friend, who will inevitably read this and see him or herself in it:  I apologize.  You’ll undoubtedly tell me that I’m wrong about this, that I didn’t embarrass you—I know better.  Because perception does matter, not just to you and me, but to everyone.  It’s the only thing linking us to the rest of the world.  And to the rest of the world, I’ll close with a lesson that I’m trying to impress upon my children:  Behave in a way you can be proud of later.  Because you never know who’s watching…but you can decide what they see when they do.

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