If you’ve ever been in a writing group and done the exercise where you show an image, have everyone write a story about the image, then compare stories, then you’ll know just how varied the stories we make up about people can be. And we, every one of us, make sup stories about people all the time. That’s what an impression is. You meet someone, collect a few bits of data – expression, appearance, tone of voice, and whatever data comes across in what they say – and you fill in the rest without even thinking of it. Say you see some cute hippie chick at a jam band concert, flowy skirt, spinning and dancing and cutting loose, groovin’ with the tunes. What assumptions would you make about her?
Me, I’d probably think she’s easy going, open to fun. Likes to catch a little buz one way or another. Relaxed and fun and open with her affections. Her home has no doors, just bead curtains. She makes pot candy or llama-wool mittens. Worships the Moon and the Earth and above all the Goddess. Got a name like Heart or maybe she’s a Samantha but prefers to be called Chloe-Bell.
That’s a lot of story invented just by seeing someone. And probably mostly false.
She could be a straight-edge podiatrist who is there because she actually likes the music.
She could be a predator, looking for idiot trustafarians who she can get alone and wasted, and then rip off all their cash, smart phone, and credit cards.
You just don’t know.
But we make up stories anyway, even when we just see someone for a moment. Even when we don’t knwo a damned thing.
Here’s what got me thinking on this subject. I work in a clinic. There’s a patient who comes in frequently; female, Eastern-European, ebulliently energetic and a little scattered when she talks to you, but always sweet. And she’s always dressed and presented well. But here’s the thing – she always, always, always has a very large rolling suitcase with her.
We staff would share jokes, we’d chuckle. We’d make up stories about what she keeps in her giant suitcase. Urns full of former husbands. Dead cats. You name it. We took this one artifact – giant rolling suitcase – and turned it into “She’s a crazy person.” And it started to stick. I thought of her as one of our crazy patients. Not dangerous, just a bit tweaked out in the brain. I mean, that’s huge and deeply invasive, making assumptions about someone’s mental state.
Recently, I was chatting with the doc about her, and I mentioned The Suitcase, with a little smirk, as if there were a joke to be made. The doc jus shrugged and said, a throw-away, unconcerned remark, “She rides the bus. I think she uses it for shopping.”
It just kind of shook my head up. So, instead of dead cats, you’re telling me she carries a suitcase around because it makes sense to do so?
So I guess I’m the jerk. Not the first time.
Makes sense. She’s always dressed well. Europeans, broadly speaking, usually put more effort into being presentable before leaving the house than Americans do. Go most places in Europe, and you’ll see a much lower rate of public displays of sweatpants, for example. So here’s this lady who is in the clean-and-well-dressed-European category, she has to take the bus to get around, she has to shop for groceries and stuff, she owns a nice rolling suitcase, so what’s she gonna do? Go buy one of those ugly metal rolling basket things? Or maybe she’ll make the practical choice of using her suitcase. And for this she became, in my head, crazy dead cat lady.
Sure, she could have anything in her suitcase. A collapsed sniper rifle and ammo. Rasputin’s left foot. Letters from a former lover. Maybe even cats. Maybe it’s a Schrodinger suitcase, containing a cat whose state of mortality is unknown. We can’t know if it’s alive or dead until we open the suitcase, and therefore until then the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead. So her suitcase could hold anything, but if I whip out my Occam’s razor – snick snick! – we determine that, yeah, it’s probably this week’s groceries. And she always has it with her when I see her because taking the bus is a pain, so she always limps her errands together in one trip.
I can’t tie that all up with a nice bow, but I guess I’m just reminded to beware of the stories I form about people without real evidence. Never know who I might shut out of my life, just because of a perception I invented myself and accepted as truth.