Others’ Perception Of You

Is to know one’s self to know what other people think of you?

I ask this because I was discussing one of my favourite thought experiments with a friend recently; I asked her:

“Would you rather know all the bad things everyone’s ever said about you, or have everyone know the bad things you’ve said about them?”

They pondered this for a second and concluded that they had a pretty good idea of what other people would consider to be there foibles, so went for the former option. The interesting thing, though, is that (as far as i saw it) they were wrong – dead wrong – a million miles off from the actual things that people would see as negatives about them.

Obviously I did not decide to educate them on what I considered other people considered to be their failings. After pontificating on this for a while I came to the conclusion that she was coming from a very insular position were she had considered things important to her, rather than what might frustrate people socially.

More interestingly, it brought up another question: How much do we really know about what other people think of us and is this even important?

For example, I consider myself to be quite a self reflective person but would other people consider me to be obstinate, someone who continually makes the same kinds of mistakes, without ever realising I’m trapped in a cycle?

I have found that when talking about someone amongst mutual friends there is usually some kind of consensus about them, which, perhaps, wouldn’t be shared to their face: they’re moody; they’re lazy; they’re rude… etc. etc. This will be bandied around like it’s not a problem; you still like that person and they’re not there so there feelings will not be hurt.

But… wait… what if there’s a consensus about me that I don’t realise? If I knew about it would I be able to change myself to be a more positive person? Would i be powerless to do anything about my nature? Would I be offended that these jerks thought such jerky things about me? Is it actually important to be thought well of, to be, popular?

The Wednesday Club, not exactly “popular”

There’s a particularly wonderful fridge magnet that says “If you’re dog thinks you’re great, don’t ask for a second opinion.” There’s also research that says that, most commonly, the people who have an accurate opinion about their importance to the world and their ability to affect their surroundings are the clinically depressed. The rest of us are just delusional about our place in the grand scheme of things.

An hilarious variation on the “dog thinks you’re great” theme

So if we are unaware, in part, of the negative things people might think of us, is this an actual problem? Possibly not, but it just strikes me as interesting as we are inherently social creatures* and are defined by our relationship to the world and the people. Even those people who consider themselves to be introverted or don’t care what the outside world think about them will engage in society through books, cds, the internet etc. Even if they genuinely don’t care what people/society think about them they still care about society enough to interact with some aspects of it. Perhaps the only people who can claim not to care about society are hermits**. These are in short supply.

This is why it must be strange to be famous; you have the ability to see what the world dispassionatly thinks about you, whether it be good or bad, which is something the rest of us would have a very hard time doing. But then, who can say that this brings them any closer to knowing what is truly felt about them. Will reading all this opinion on them give them an over inflated sence of importance? Will they truly realise some times people spout off for no reason if they see no harm in it?

Likewise, you might feel like you a have a true opinion on your relationship with the world through your trusted friends. But how much do they sugar things, can people be true to their own feelings when discussing them with others? A moot point but even if your closest, most trusted friends will only give you one view of yourself, one with a necessarily  positive spin (these people like you). What about work colleagues,, your superiors and inferiors? People who serve you? People you bump into randomly in the street? Can you know what they are thinking?

I have focussed mainly on the negative here. It could also be equally true people are unaware of what people see as positive aspects of their personality. But again I come back to the question: does it matter?

Well, yes and no. Not knowing at all how you “come across” would mean that you  are not really relating to society, but, on the other hand, completely obsessing on how you are perceived is a thankless task and leaves no consideration for the development of your own rich, inner life.

So now, I’ve put something like this out into the world. I wonder what it makes you think about me. But not too much.

*This was demonstrated when I went to a talk given by an autistic person. There was a bang outside of the lecture theatre and the whole audience turned to see what it was. “You see,”  she said, “you lot are all social creatures. You all turned to see who made the noise. I didn’t care”

**or those with autism. As the above anecdote shows.

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