Saturday, January 18, 2014

Misinterpreting Others, or What Can Lead Sherlock Astray

In a conversation with a car salesman, he says, referring to both of us, "We're just a couple of golfers here." I have no idea what he's talking about. I dislike golf.  I have only played a few times, and the last time, years ago, was a disastrous outing with my brother and father.  The salesman has meant his comment to bind us together, but instead it annoys me. Later I realize what happened. I was wearing a hat that said Strata.  I had “borrowed" it from my father because I liked the colors and because I like to wear things of my dad's.  I hadn't known that Strata was a golf brand.
We make all kinds of assumptions about one another based, not only on race, gender, age, geography, the usual suspects, but on what people wear, eat, listen to, etc. We believe peoples’ tastes say something about them.  (Nick Hornby's Hi Fidelity is a great novel about this.)  Much of the time it might, yet often we probably mistake the results of relationships for displays of taste.
As I walk down the street, someone yells "Go Chicago!" and, again, I don't know why until I realize that I'm wearing a shirt that says “White Sox” on it. I put it on because it was clean.  I don't care about baseball; one Christmas my brother gave me a bag of t-shirts and sweatshirts he bought at the Goodwill.  It may say something about his frugalness or my slovenliness or my indifference to what I wear, but these cannot be known by looking.
My music collection has been stolen a couple times and not replaced, my favorite books I give to others to read, and the DVDs on the shelf are a haphazard assortment of things that others have given me.  In short, many of my possessions reveal little about what I like and have liked.
            It’s not, as Reagan said, “facts are silly things.”  It’s that facts are almost impossible to correctly interpret without context.  A student of mine estimates that she has seen “Little Mermaid” over a hundred times.  Does this tell you something about her?  Perhaps, but probably not the right thing if you don’t know that she did so while working at a daycare.
People are hard, if not impossible to know and understand from the surface -- as almost every fairy tale says -- yet we persist and insist.  We live in a world of signs that we not only misunderstand, but usually don't realize we have.  I didn’t explain to the salesman or the guy on the street why I was wearing certain clothes; they moved on unruffled by their misinterpretations. 
We all do this.  We confidently navigate a world that is nothing like what we think it is. 
We’re just a bunch of golfers here.

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