Widgets Magazine


Looking Up: Do You Know Me?

I always wonder how we can possibly know anybody else, especially since we never stop getting to know ourselves. When I was much younger, this was my first crazy philosophical puzzle: that a certain me was inexplicably bound inside this walking, talking container of a thing, and everyone else was supposedly in the same position. It boggled my mind. No one could ever really reach the mental interior goings-on of anyone else. (Sometimes I also thought: how did I know that everyone else was actually not a robot!?)

I still get totally caught up in that youthful quandary. Nowadays, though, the question has translated itself into one of perception: the ways people figure each other out, and the ways we do it incorrectly. You already know the endless examples. A friend of mine had a bad freshman experience pursuing a guy friend of hers, realizing later that it was caused only by her own high school dream of college relationships rather than his person. Another of my friends is/was dating a guy whose transcript blatantly exhibits a superficial pattern of preferred types, though he somehow seems unaware. As for me, reflecting on the guys who have shown interest in me before, I find myself growing increasingly suspicious that quite a few of them never genuinely knew me. What they did know was the pleasant side of me and an overall, filled-in idea.

Whether for being in love or for hate, we’re always explaining the reasons why. As we try to justify our emotions, we presume we know the other’s character type enough to pinpoint their highlights or flaws. But it must be so much more arbitrary than we think. Otherwise, how could a personality trait that starts off so attractive in the beginning become such a turn-off? You’ve surely experienced the speed at which someone’s initially funny habit turns into an intolerably obnoxious one. It calls into question whether, when we find ourselves drawn to someone, we are truly drawn to them…or to the idea we’ve created of them. People are creative, our minds take flight and we are entirely capable of drawing up the realities we live in. This means, however, that sometimes what we think we see in someone has more to do with our own situation than theirs.

It seems that inevitably, unknowingly and intricately we label our peers in one way or another. Humans are natural organizers. This is why stereotypes and judgments exist—they are the conscious and subconscious categories useful in an unpredictable world. And I’m beginning to see how easy it is for initial impressions to become permanent conclusions that don’t quite fit. Most of the time, it’s only in retrospect that we realize how mistakenly we interpreted a personality, or how forcefully we imposed our own ideals on it.

This unintended artificiality of many relationships is a reality into which we step neatly throughout our college walk. Here, it’s very possible to see only one side of someone, all the time—next to them in class twice a week, down the hall because you’re dormmates, at the night meetings of your student group. In all of these situations, it’s almost frightening how unaware we can be of someone’s total person simply because we see them only in one setting. It’s such a supremely simple thing to settle our definition of someone after single-context exposures. But people are cryptic kaleidoscope puzzles. When we forget that, we take single facets and make masterpieces out of them. Like I said, we all have an amazing creative capacity, a natural talent we use to color the characters of those around us.

It’s just that I’ve been thinking lately about the minority group of people in my life who know me. They’re the friends with whom life catch-ups are never wholly necessary, and the family who’s grown with me and beside me. They’re the ones who not only see, but also honestly accept the parts of me of which I’m not proud. And I’ve even been lucky enough to meet some of these people here on this campus, too.

I don’t want to take it for granted. It’s so unique to connect with someone deeply enough that you begin to see them clearly, even when you’re not with them all the time. In that same vein, though, I’ve also realized how often I assume I’ve figured out a person and how often they obviously think they’ve done the same about me. But for most of these individuals whose lives have spontaneously, unexpectedly come into contact with our own, that is a bit much to assume, isn’t it?

Are you a stranger? Maybe you don’t have to be! Find Nina at ninamc@stanford.edu, where she’s ready for your thoughts on whatever.

  • mind also boggled

    I love your always-thoughtful column. I, too, have always been boggled by self-awareness. I remember quite well the first time I was first aware of my self-awareness. I was four or five and walking next to my mom on the second floor (to my left was a rail looking down on the first floor) of an indoor mall. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was a kid, and others were adults, and I was — as you write — *inexplicably* contained in this vessel having well-defined characteristics, but it was as though I had just found myself there by chance.

    My only two insights concerning self-awareness since then (the first due either to a correct or incorrect interpretation of something I believe Douglas Hofstadter wrote) are that (1) a system may be thought of as self-aware if it includes in its functioning a symbol of itself; and (2) that self-awareness by definition must include isolation from other self-awarenesses, or else they would not be *other* self-awarenesses, and so being an island universe is inevitably tied up with being self-aware.

  • Lisa

    very true…