generalizing

Before writing about Europe (which I do here), let me introduce a pet theory of mine that justifies (or so I like to think) making generalizations about people or cities based on relatively little exposure: the 80/20 Theory.

It goes like this: you can learn 80% of what there is to know about a person (city, etc.) in the first few hours or days you know them/it; learning the other 20% can take a lifetime.

Some people object strongly to this idea, particularly in our culture, where we are told constantly that “what’s important is what’s on the inside.” We are told not to judge people by their “appearance,” not to stereotype. More than that, many people object to the idea that _they personally_ are so transparent to others. So let me begin with hedges:

1. The 20% almost always contains the most interesting bits, so it’s not like you can sum someone up and forget them in a matter of hours. There’s always more to know about _any_ person.

2. There are stereotypes and there are stereotypes. The ones that do harm tend to be based on characteristics that people are born with: skin color, gender, sexual orientation. I wouldn’t begin to claim that you can conclude much from these — not so much because it would be morally wrong to do so (though it may be), but because you will almost always be _incorrect_.

3. You can be wrong about the 80%. People surprise you, and sometimes you find out that someone is _totally_ different than your first impression (this is different than finding out there is _more_ to them than you thought). But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

4. I do not consider this a cynical or deflationary theory — it’s not meant to deny the many mysteries of human nature, to imply that people are shallow, or boring, or predictable. I think it’s just common sense, common experience, so common it’s easy to overlook.

We aren’t supposed to judge people based on their appearance. Well, yes and no. The word “appearance” is not particularly perspicacious. In one sense, basic characteristics obviously tell you almost nothing (see caveat #2). But in another sense, of _course_ we judge people based on their appearance, every day, all the time; it’s a basic human faculty, evolutionarily necessary to a social organism. Thank god we _are_ able to make relatively accurate judgments quickly; otherwise we wouldn’t have made it very far.

We all know from our everyday experience that there is a great deal you can tell from someone’s appearance. The important distinction to make is this: certain characteristics reflect accidents of birth (e.g., skin color), but many others are behavioral, and these reflect personality and temperament. When it comes to behavior, what’s on the outside reflects what’s on the inside.

Another important distinction to make is the difference between understanding and judging. In evolutionary terms, of course, they are intimately intertwined. For a proto-human on the savannah, face to face with a strange creature, understanding the creature and discerning whether it is helpful or harmful were one and the same. But out of immediate danger, it is possible to separate these faculties. Though it may sound paradoxical, in many ways understanding is impaired by judgment.”Good” and “bad” (or in terms more favored today, good and evil) are extremely broad, course-grained categorizations, and the tendency of those who are eager to use them is to categorize someone/thing and think no more of it. To more fully understand someone, one has to remain almost passive, to observe, to let the person _show_ their nature, and this requires a (temporary) suspension of judgment. Once you’ve judged, you stop seeing.

People reveal themselves every second, in a thousand ways: do they make eye contact? What’s their posture like? Do they initiate subjects of conversation or react to others’? What are their typical gestures? Do they flutter their hands? Play with their hair? Smile frequently? What kind of smile? Do they touch other people frequently? How do they react to being touched?

And of course, people make a set of choices that are on obvious display: they dress themselves. Despite the protestations of disgruntled teens in baggy jeans or long black overcoats, it is perfectly legitimate, nay, inevitable, to draw conclusions based on what someone has chosen to wear and how they have chosen to wear it.

Verbal queues are also revealing, but to discern the most from them, one has to heed not only the content, what is said, but _how_ it is said, and what _isn’t_ said. For instance: pay attention to what bugs someone — not what they say bugs them, but what they actually notice and comment on. It is almost a truism that what we hate in the outer world reflects what we dislike about ourselves.

For instance: I despise hypocrisy. I am perpetually noticing the differences between what people say and what they actually do. My hatred of hypocrisy probably reflects my own internal struggle. I hate that what I claim to believe comes across so little in my actions; I hate that I frequently act in a way that reflects choices and characteristics I disavow; I hate that I am so eager to formulate advice I am unable to follow. I hate hypocrisy in myself, and that makes me acutely aware of it in other people.

The inverse is true as well: what people admire and love tends to be what they seek for themselves.

While many people are loathe to accept this theory when it is stated baldly, their actions demonstrate that they accept it on an intuitive level. More than anything, people want to _make_ an impression, that is, they want to design or control the impressions other people receive. In some people, this translates to being extremely reserved in new social situations, careful in what and how much they say; they do not want to be revealed, or rather, they want to carefully and deliberately reveal themselves. Others, extroverts, try to take over impression-making quickly and actively assert themselves as they want to be known. Both understand that they are all but naked, that their every word and gesture speaks volumes.

People say when you meet the right person, “you just know.” Love at first sight. That’s the 80%, right up in your face. Take my wife (no, don’t!): as anyone who knows her will tell you, once you’ve known her for a short while you can tell that she is a fundamentally kind, decent, generous person. She’s incapable of deceit, grounded and sensible. As we were together longer, I started uncovering the 20%: her girlishness, her wit, her healthy sense of the absurd, her iron -stubbornness- strength. And this is what happens when you propose to marry someone: you say, in effect, “I so love what I know of you that I promise to stay with you no matter what I uncover of the remaining 20%.” Not everybody finds math talk romantic, but…

Incredibly, this entire pile of poo has been written just to justify me making wild generalizations about Europe, which I do in my next post.