It’s not just women

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave (or at least avoiding Facebook) you’ve likely had the chance to view a video clip of an interview with Dustin Hoffman about his role in “Tootsie” years ago. In this clip, mostly shared by women I know, he talks about working with a makeup team to transform himself into a woman, and hoping they would make him beautiful. He was concerned that people wouldn’t find his female personna “interesting” otherwise. Later while talking to his wife he had the realization that this is what women go through all the time, and that he has probably missed out on getting to know many wonderful, interesting women simply because he discounted them because of their appearance. He gets choked up talking about it.

Well said and bravo, Dustin. The point is valid, and the clip is poignant. I don’t wish to detract in any way from it, or from the reactions of my friends to it. I just have this to say: what a blessed life he’s lived if that’s the first time he realized that point. Many people, and far from women only, go through life continually discounted in some way because of their appearance. You think men are the only ones who judge the opposite sex by their looks? I still remember in junior high school when word got out to some girl that I liked her. Word got back to me that her reaction was, “Tom Stratton? But he’s a DOG!” (I didn’t use the ‘H’ in my name back then. And my interest in her ended right then.)

Nor was that the only time. I think most of us are used to having people look at us but not really see us. I’m certain that attractive people also experience their own version of it. I’m not sure it’s any easier to deal with someone who is intimidated by your looks and doesn’t dare talk to you. Or if they’re always talking to your chest. Is unwanted attention any better than no attention?

I imagine it’s similar with celebrity. How many people see Dustin Hoffman and think, “Huh, I wonder if we happen to like the same kind of food, or if we’re both dog people. I’ll bet he’s an interesting and down-to-earth guy if I were to give him a chance”? The vast majority probably don’t see past his celebrity and have no interest in him beyond their ten seconds of borrowed fame.

I grew up as part of the geek under-culture. I was an unattractive young man with interests that didn’t really fit within the norm. And I was fine with that, really. Why would I want to hang out with people who cared more about clothes, or cars, or rock bands, or sports than about the things I liked? I wasn’t going to change who I was just to try to get the “popular” kids to be interested in me. Better to hang out with people who appreciated me for who I was.

It’s interesting today to hear about the popularity of “Big Bang Theory” on television. Supposedly geekdom is cool now. What I suspect, though, is that it’s those geeks that are cool. I doubt all that many people look around them, see geeks, and think, “Hey, I wonder if that guy over there playing Magic might be as cool and funny as that guy on that show.” Maybe they do now. I don’t know. If so, hallelujah! We’ve somehow evolved as a species!

The fact is we all make judgments based on visual cues. It’s not always just how attractive someone is, but their body language, their dress, their behavior , their initial verbalizations, etc. Even five seconds of watching something is enough to give all sorts of cues, whether they’re accurate or not. We take in a tremendous amount of data about someone in a very short amount of time, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Very little of it gives us any real sense of whether or not someone is interesting. It’s just that some people have learned to trust those initial impressions whether they really are accurate or not. Some have learned to probe a little more and gather more information before passing judgment. And in many cases daily life forces us to remain in contact with people long enough to get to know them, usually altering our first impressions.

When I interviewed for my current job there were three women conducting the interview. Admittedly, I wanted to like them, because I wanted them to like me. But if someone would have asked me right after that to predict what my relationship would be with each of the three a year later I probably would have been wrong. I get along just fine with all three of them. They’re nice people. But I have different depths of relationships with each of them that only developed over time.

Human relationships are complex things. Some people really are shallow enough to make up their mind about people based on initial appearance. But there are so many other factors involved in forming relationships that we really ought to cut ourselves some slack. When you see someone across the room what else do you have to go on than appearance? It’s a rare person who sees someone and immediately thinks, “I should go talk to that person right now, lest I make a decision about them based only on looks.”

Most of us more likely scan the room, unconsciously creating a ranking of everyone there in order of how interesting we think they will be, as well as how interesting we think they will find us. When I enter a room I suspect I immediately discount the most attractive, or the most outgoing, because I think they won’t find me interesting. Is that fair? Is it any more fair than discounting someone who is less attractive because I don’t think they will be interesting?

You know who I most often will talk to first? The first person to make eye contact. It’s as simple as that. That little acknowledgement of my existence is enough to convince me it’s okay to approach them. I feel it’s okay to introduce myself, make a little small talk, and dig a little to see if there’s a potential connection there. Ignore my presence and I will ignore yours. I won’t come up and invade your bubble unless I have a pretty good reason.

Mr. Hoffman’s experience is touching and poignant, and it’s easy to see why it gets women talking. But I think he did a bit of a disservice to half of humanity by limiting his realization. Nearly everyone is overlooked for one reason or another. We all deserve more of a chance than we usually get.

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