Side Note Haiti: That Other Habit

The other thing I alluded to in the last post was the way in which I conceptualize people. No matter how often people repeat a cliche like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” it doesn’t stop anyone. Even people who are very good at forming accurate opinions about a person’s deep character, even they generate a first impression, a snap judgment, upon seeing someone. I’m sure it’s some long lost survival mechanism from the caveman days. But it comes back to habit. I only realized this because, once taken out of my element and dropped in the middle of a third world country, it was impossible for me to fall back on my normal means of forming impressions.

Think about all the things you use to determine a person’s character. Their appearance, body, facial expression, stride, stance, even dress. The way the speak, the tone of their voice, their topics of discussion, interactions with others, eye contact, etc. It turns out, and maybe this is only news to me, that these are all culturally determined. Being in Haiti, I can’t leaner much from speech and conversation because I don’t necessarily understand everything that people are saying. So I can’t assign them labels like educated, pretentious, humble, etc. The way they walk, even their concept of personal space is different than the paradigms I grew up with. It’s common for two people who are talking to each other to look off in completely different directions. And most of my personal interactions are warped by an observable “blan effect.” If I want to talk to anyone younger than me, first I have to get past the run on question-answer of “Howareyoueyeamfine.” followed immediately by “give me one doll’a.” Only then can I even begin to form an impression of who they actually are.

Without my awareness, I’ve developed more of an intuitive response to people. Since I can’t label them in the ways in which I normally do (I still try to label, it’s ingrained), I feel like I’ve become more accurate in my assessment of people. It isn’t as quick and the cues are less superficial. I can’t quite articulate them yet. But I like this better than my old modality. Who knows if it will stick.

What stopped me in my tracks was a moment during our walk from the Dominican border on a hot dog/fried chicken run. I saw a woman walking the other direction, maybe in her late 40’s. And for whatever reason I was fixated on her. Since my brain naturally goes to labels and predefined boxes, the impression I formed of her, the only word that came to my mind was elegance. This was a quick judgment made from across the street while carrying hot dogs on my shoulders. Not exactly a get-to-know-someone moment. I was certain about this, elegance. And then the crowd kind of parted a little. And I noticed her clothes. They were in tatters. Poorly matched. Poorly fitted. Old and dirty. Nothing even remotely conducive with elegance. There was total dissonance between her appearance and my impression. Still, elegance prevailed.

The thing that struck me is how much of my life has been spent identifying people based on superficial factors. You may be reading this and thinking, “Duh, idiot, stop judging people.” But I genuinely thought I had risen above that (Kind of like how every person will claim they don’t care about what other people think, bullshit). It took a glitch in my predictable experience of life to see exactly what I was doing. It’s a scientific/psychological fact that it’s much easier to identify other people’s mistakes than it is to identify our own, even if we’re actively searching out our own faults. Changing the context of a habit or interrupting a pattern is almost like a way to experience the world as a different person. You can look at yourself from a different angle, identify weaknesses and faults more readily. This is something I highly recommend. And it comes back to that shoe thing. Paying attention to what you’re doing allows you to deliberately choose your next action.

When you meet someone, look at their hands and their eyes. I think you can learn a lot more about a person from those than you can looking at their clothes. If they don’t have hands or eyes, hooks and glass or something, that’ll probably tell you a lot as well.

I think this skill, of breaking habits, is of utmost importance if we, as a whole, are ever to prevent history from just repeating itself. Think of how many things we do on a daily basis because that’s just how it’s always been done or that’s how everyone else does it.

When I get back to AZ in a few days, it’s basically summer, which means the most liberal definitions will pass for clothing. So I’ll just fall back on my normal evolutionary tendency: looking at boobs. I’ll get back to ascertaining the deeper character of people thing when winter rolls around, from like January to mid-February.

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