Friday, August 10, 2012

Perception...and Another Lesson Learned

Perception.  What I perceive will not be your reality, and vice versa.  How we have been raised, what we learned in school, in life, even what we hear in music, or someone's voice, or read in a book, a letter--are all perceptions based on the reality in our own little personal bubbles.

Personal space.  That's almost an oxymoron to me.  Personal implying private, owned just by you, and yet space conjures images of wide, open vistas, even the vastness of our Universe.  We each have a zone, if you will, that marks the boundaries we find acceptable.  I have two basic ones: I can't stand anyone coming up behind me while I'm walking and will step aside for them to pass; and whatever you do, don't crowd me in the check-out line at the store.

But our personal space is just perception, isn't it?

When I was younger, still looking out at the world with rose-colored glasses, I had a very big, happy smile.  I used to smile all the time.  I smiled at strangers, friends, co-workers, family.  Then that big ol' smile started getting me in trouble.  Smiling at the guy on the bus, cheerful in the beauty of a Monday morning.  After I got off at my stop, he followed me for blocks until I had to hide in the back of a store.  I began driving to work instead of taking the bus.  Just because I smiled. 

I smiled at the people all around me at an open-air concert, buoyed by the music and the energy, and a girl tried to pick a fight with me because I was smiling at her boyfriend.  A guy I hadn't even noticed.

A man at one of my earliest jobs tried to grab me in the office supply closet.  Because I smiled at him every morning when I walked into the building; in his mind that was an invitation.

I learned not to smile so broadly, to judge the degree of a smile, to smile less often.  A sad lesson to learn: that there is something to perceive in a smile that isn't in any way what was meant, other than just the simple gesture it was.

Then there's friendly.  How can being kind, pleasant, interested in another human being, be misconstrued as anything other than exactly what it is?  Friendly has gotten me in just as much trouble as my smile.  Many times over the years, when I've shown curiosity or paid attention to someone, it's often been taken in a way totally other than intended.

Why is that?  Are we so callous, or jaded, or paranoid, that simple gestures are suspect?  I learned not to be so outgoing, not to engage in random conversations, to rebuff a stranger's attempts to pass the time in chatter.  Another lesson.

Recently, I had a reminder of those old memories.  This time though it was in the cyber world, a whole new reality where, it appears, lessons still need to be learned.

I had a minor acquaintance--sum total of a dozen emails or so--and in the course of this brief correspondence, I freely admit that on several occasions I used the  ;D  icon.    And holy crap, we all know that constitutes a big goddamn smile, don't we?  Compounding that, a kindly friendliness was taken as crossing the boundary of personal space.

An email was received, succinct remarks were made.  And I got the message, quite clearly.  After all, I've been here before.  I was mortified, embarrassed.  Then I got pissed, because dammit, haven't I already learned this: to smile carefully, sparingly; not be so open and friendly?

Perceptions.  It makes no difference if a connection is made in person, on the internet, in a letter, over the phone.  Every situation is a ring toss between was is, and what is perceived; between my reality and yours.

Another lesson learned...


  1. I absolutely relate to ALL of this. I truly do. Can I tell you....I so do the pull over on the sidewalk when people are walking too close behind. I.Hate.That. All my friends know it too. Have to pull over and look at a store window to let them pass. Annoying...and perception is reality. As I get older, I really find myself respecting more and more how people perceive things. We're all quite different. Cheers for this insight.

    1. That "crawling up your back" thing is horrible, isn't it? I've paused in front of many a window...

      I still find it odd, and disheartening, that basic gestures or bahaviors (smiles, being friendly) are so easily misunderstood. No wonder the world is so screwed up.