Perceptions vs. Reality


When you look at someone what can you see? 

Look at a person standing across the room from you. What do you notice? Are they wearing a purple or red shirt? Is their hair short or long? If they are wearing a backpack, you might assume they are a student. If they are wearing a jersey, you might assume they are an athlete. If they are smiling you might assume they are happy, and if they are not smiling you might assume they are bored, sad, or tired. All of these assumptions are based off of appearance. They only take in surface-level information. 

What can you REALLY detect about a person from their appearance? 

The picture above shows the Diversity Iceberg, which was created by the Anti Defamation League (ADL) of Massachusetts. What does this image mean?

Imagine icebergs in Antarctica. The image that often comes to mind includes a floating block of ice that lies above freezing water. The part of the iceberg we can see is only a fraction of the entire iceberg. The majority of the iceberg lies below the water line. This idea applies to our perceptions of people. 

A person's physical appearance represents the part of the iceberg that we can actually see. Notice in the above image that "Physical Appearance" lies above the "water line." 

Sometimes, select characteristics are assumed from a person's appearance, and these appear within the water line. For example, you might be able to tell that someone is married if they have a wedding band on their finger. However, people might wear rings for other reasons unrelated to marriage. That is why you can only sometimes assume this characteristic from appearance. Another example includes someone wearing a necklace with a cross or star of David, and you might assume that they are religious. However, many people who are religious do not always wear accessories that show that aspect of themselves. That is why you can't always definitively decide if someone has a religious background based on their physical appearance alone.

Below the water line lies the majority of a person's characteristics. These qualities are the part of the iceberg that we can not see. From the way a person dresses, you cannot assume that they like to draw or paint, run or ski, go to church or volunteer. From a person's physical appearance, you cannot assume their family life, their sexual orientation, or their ethnicity. These qualities that we can not easily see are important characteristics that a person might identify themselves with. When we make assumptions about other people without knowing them well enough to be accurate, we ignore all of these awesome qualities just because we cannot see them. What can we do to stop making assumptions based on physical appearance?

The first step is to recognize that we make assumptions. Whether or not our judgements are  subconscious or conscious, we all naturally make assumptions. To move forward, we must recognize that fault. Next time you catch yourself in the middle of a judgement, check in with yourself. Remind yourself that your judgement is not based off of the person's whole story. Their clothes, facial expressions, accessories, phones, and other aspects of their physical appearances do not provide enough information for you to understand their background.