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That day when we learn how wrong we are about other people

by Greg Krehbiel on 13 April 2017

From the “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” school of thought, there are two extremes to avoid when it comes to making assumptions about reading other people.

The clown assumes that he can tell what other people are thinking by their expressions and manners, while the joker thinks you can’t tell much of anything (or anything reliable, anyway) from people’s expressions and manners.

I can’t read minds, but I can read faces decently well, and when I’m feeling clownish I try to read people. Not seriously, but almost as a game. Here’s an example.

There’s a kind of woman I see (especially in the city) who seems to have a look on her face that says, “Yes, I know I’m pretty and everyone wants to be near me and talk to me, but I’m giving the world a cold, bitchy face to discourage that, because it gets so tiresome.”

A woman on the elevator this morning had that face. Which is fine. I didn’t want to talk to her.

But she (i.e., the ‘she’ conjured by my imagination) was so obsessed with herself that she had no clue she was standing right in front of the card reader — that thing where we all have to waive our cards to prove we’re not in Al Qaeda.

So little miss pretty gets on the elevator first and stands directly in front of the reader. As daughter #3 would say, “No situational awareness.”

Three women enter the elevator, and then me. Each of the women have to say “excuse me” as they reach in front of “don’t bother me” face to swipe their cards across the reader. I didn’t say excuse me. I did avoid elbowing her.

Got the picture? Then hold that thought.

Every once in a while there’s a story about how brain scans of one sort or another are getting close to being able to read minds. So imagine this.

At some point in the future we’ll be hooked up to some computer interface that will give us access to all sorts of information. (My book The Intruder is set in just such an environment.) You won’t have to wonder about the origin of “clean as a whistle,” because as soon as you wonder about it the answer will be fed directly into your brain.

At that point, you’ll look at little miss pretty on the elevator and you’ll know exactly what’s up with her. You won’t have to make a guess based on her expression, because your computer interface will have already scanned her and will tell you exactly what she’s thinking. (She actually doesn’t think she’s pretty at all, and her bitchy face is because her husband forgot to take out the garbage — for the fifth week in a row.)

I realize that any such interface would have privacy settings and such, so this scenario isn’t intended to be realistic. That’s not the point. The point is that it’s at least possible that at some time in the future we’ll see the stark contrast between what we assume about people — based on their expressions and tone and body language — and what’s really going on with them. (If the scans are accurate.)

2017-04-13  »  Greg Krehbiel