Perceptions can be deceiving
June 14, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

During a recent media event, I was talking to the company’s marketing manager, Michael.

While we were chatting, an attractive young woman came up to me and introduced herself, and in a breathy voice said “I’m Michael’s intern.”

She was about 10 feet tall, blonde, and looked like a model straight off the catwalk in her tailored skirt and cashmere sweater.

I came within an ace of sniggering and saying, “I bet you are.” It was all I could do to keep from digging young Michael in the ribs and calling him a dog.

There was absolutely no reason for me to assume that the intern was not a talented and well-qualified young woman, but I could not help but wonder if the screening process had included a talent competition and a swimsuit event.

It is sad how shallow some of us are, and how unfair our perceptions.

Clothing is a major factor in our perceptions. Some people might be tempted, in a room full of suits, to discount the opinions of a guy wearing a faded flannel shirt and blue jeans, even though he might be the only sensible person in the bunch.

On the other hand, we can’t let our flannel-clad friend off too easily, because the reverse is also true. If a guy in an Armani suit encounters a group of casually-attired equals, he is likely to be treated with suspicion and distrust.

Politicians and sales representatives understand this, and, I must confess, so do journalists.

If I hope to get a decent story out of a farmer, for example, I sure in the heck am not going to show up on his farm formally dressed. By the same token, if I am interviewing the chairman of the board, I am not going to appear in cut-off jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

In either of these examples, the way I dress would not affect my preparation, or my ability to understand the subject of the interview, but it would dramatically affect the perception of the person I was interviewing, and it would color the content of the discussion.

Body art is another area that creates strong reactions in some people. If a person has more tattoos than Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, and enough piercings to set off an airport metal detector, it doesn’t tell us a thing about his qualifications to do a particular job, or about his intellect or level of responsibility.

But if two candidates with comparable resumes apply for a position, and one looks like a cover model from GQ, and the other looks like he just stepped off a carnival midway, which candidate will get the job?

Naturally, if charged with hiring a person from among equally-qualified applicants, an employer must base the decision on whatever factors set them apart, but the more important question is, does the person who looks “different” even get consideration?

Too often, it seems that our society, despite our illusions about individuality, is really guided by a herd mentality, and we are in a never-ending battle to try to look exactly like one another, specifically to avoid standing out from the crowd.

It starts in school. Actually, it starts a long time before that, but it is easy to observe in school.

Even back in the ancient times when I was matriculating at the dear old school, one had to wear the right shoes, the right jeans, and the right jacket if one wanted to fit in.

Naturally, I went to great lengths to avoid fitting in.

My cronies and I shopped at the Goodwill in order to create our own look.

I have made a consistent effort to avoid judging people, or falling victim to superficial comparisons, but I would either be guilty of prevarication or just plain deluded if I claimed that I am not subject to prejudices of my own. We all are. The key is to be aware of these prejudices, and to be vigilant about not letting them control our perceptions or our decisions.

The reality, of course, is that some people will always make judgements based strictly on appearance.

Now, more than ever, this is a problem.

Every day, we are confronted by those who would sell us appearance over substance.

We can’t afford to take the bait.

The economy is still in dire straits, and we need the best of the best on deck to help the country get back on track.

Among the thousands of Americans who have lost their jobs during the past few years are an alarming number of those who are in the prime of their careers.

Their combined experience is invaluable, but they have been cast aside because of the perception that they are “too expensive.”

Companies have replaced older workers with younger ones to save money.

One suspects though, that many older workers would be willing to take a pay cut to stay in their chosen career field.

Instead, some of these people are forced to take whatever jobs they can get.

It is an incredible waste of talent and experience to have this pool of people, some of them in their 50s, who are practically unemployable due to perceptions.

It is clear that perceptions are dangerous.

Whether they involve gorgeous interns who are not taken seriously, young people who don’t fit the mold, or older people who are cast aside and ignored, perceptions lead to missed opportunities.

If we focus on the surface and ignore the substance, it is not only the victim who suffers.

We suffer too, because we are missing out on the value of the person behind the perception, and that, my friends, is a tragedy.