Monday, April 30, 2007

When she stares back into my eyes, what is it I see?

It's really easy to fall into a trap of expectation with our friends. We think that by spending time with them and knowing how they've reacted to things in their past, that we know their minds. We were there when they behaved a certain way, and now our human brains try to fit previous situations into new circumstances. It's bound to be one of our animal survival instincts; if something moves like a tiger, it doesn't necessarily need to have stripes for us to recognize it as danger.

So we come to expect certain reactions from certain friends. It may be proven repeatedly. We can expect them to react in certain ways, right? For example, take being startled in public. One friend will be extremely startled, with sharp breath intake and rigid posture. Another friend will come up swinging. Another will always turn and smile, because they expect only friendly acquaintances. They can be relied upon (in a sense) to react this way, according to their own natures. For the most part...

But we humans are stuffed with complex social behaviors. We seldom have simple responses to anything; at least, not if we can have a complicated and easy to misunderstand response instead. Some of us are more adept (and/or straightforward) in how we present ourselves. And we are, variously, skilled or unskilled at reading our fellow humans.

To a large extent, this governs how we interact with the world every day. If we bump into someone at the supermarket line, we need to be able to read their expression to determine if they're mollified with a simple "Sorry!" or if a more profuse apology is necessary. To a computer, a simple apology is sufficient. The computer sees the need for an apology and issues one. Only a person can tell if that apology was not completely satisfying, just by looking at the expression.

I bring this up because I've had a lot of opportunity to watch people standing up and giving recitals in the last two weeks. I've also had the chance to watch the audience who watches the performer. People watching is one of my favorite "time killing" activities, and sometimes an intermission can be fascinating.

And at one of these recitals, I watched a boyfriend eagerly start a standing ovation for his performer-girlfriend at the intermission, followed by the rest of the family and some of the other audience members. When it was only him standing, his girlfriend finished her bow and noticed only him standing. She immediately bowed again (not smiling), and began shuffling music and accessories to leave the stage.

And it occurred to me that I didn't know what I was seeing. Was it me catching the awkwardness of perceiving an overly-excited significant other? Or (since she and I have talked a bit), was it me seeing her uncomfortable with a person she's not sure she wants to be involved with? My wonder was how much of my sketching of the situation was from pure observation, and how much came from (or was perceived by ME to be from) the information she had spoken to me about.

Is there any way for me to even separate these two "sides" of an observation? If she hadn't told me directly, would I have assumed trouble because I've seen similar situations before? Or is this one of those situations where everything is fine, and there was no disapproving intent? Merely a case of relief and detachment after part of a recital finished?

I suppose there's no way to stop such analytical gear-turning. What I can do....what everyone can do... is make sure that we don't go too far out on a limb with our assumptions. Making a "first generation" assumption is fine, but following those assumptions with other assumptions, all layered on the back of the same initial observation... well, that makes for a precarious guess. A house of cards, built on the back of one card which may turn out to be unsound!

And after several iterations of assumptions (the latter generations of which are entirely based on speculation), we commit a terrible error if we draw (and act on) a conclusion that we assume is based on fact, but which in reality is nothing more than the product of our active imaginations and too much "Oprah".

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