The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Judging books by their covers (or people by appearances)

There was recently a discussion on a message board (which is now ten pages long, and you have to register in order to read more than the first page) on the topic of judging people by appearances. The lady who started the discussion asked this question:

"Is it really true that you can't judge a book by its cover or a person by his/her clothes? Is it true that you shouldn't?"
Or, as she phrased it again later on in the discussion (page 6):

"1) Do people make judgments about others' dress styles? and
2) Is it OK to do so? (Because the presumed answer to #1 is "Yes.")"
On page 4, she comments:

"1. It is in the nature of man to judge. I mean "judge" in both of its definitions given in the post above. Whether the judgments are good or bad/right or wrong is a separate issue.

2. Not only is it in our nature, but it is a part of what comprises intelligence. When we are in kindegarten our teachers teach us to see/classify/categorize CONCEPTS (shapes, colores, sizes). Distinguish the squres from the circles, the blues from the reds, the big objects from the small objects. When our children can make these distinctions, they are said to be progressing well academically."
My first thought here is that she seems to be blurring the lines between "judge" (decide whether good or bad) and "classify".

As an example, say you see a dog and a cat walking down the street. Now, you have already decided, far before you saw these two particular animals, that all cats are fiends from the underworld, and all dogs are man's best friend. So when you see these two animals, and you are disgusted by seeing the cat and delighted to see the dog, is that because of how they look? Or is it simply because, upon appearance, you classify the cat as a cat and the dog as a dog? You have already judged both of these categories (cat = bad, dog = good), far before you even saw these particular animals. You perceive the cat to be part of a group which you have already judged. Seeing the cat doesn't cause you to judge it--you've already judged it before you saw it, and seeing it only allowed you to classify it as part of a known, judged group.

So it is, I think, very often with people. It isn't the clothes themselves that cause people to "judge" someone (decide the person is good or bad), as much as it is their clothes allow people to classify them with a group they already know (and have passed judgment upon, either in their favor or against it).

It also seems to me that people are more likely to change their perceptions (classifications) than their judgments. As an example, a totally pretend Joe Blow says:

"Gee, when I first saw you, I thought you were just poor white trailer trash, but now I see that you're really much smarter and more polite."

Our straw-man Joe doesn't repent of his judgment (he still judges that people who live in trailer parks are dumb and rude), but does repent of his perception (he thought, based on your appearance, that you were someone who lived in a trailer park, but now he thinks you must not). Of course, things might become very uncomfortable for Joe if he discovers you actually do live in a trailer park, but nonetheless, his first instinct is not to reverse judgment, but to think he misunderstood something. He believes that as long as he knows all the facts in the case, he will make the right judgment. If his judgment appeared to be wrong, that was simply because he didn't have all the facts.

So, before I could answer the question the lady asked, I would first have to get her to better define what she means by "judge". Is it really true you can't judge a person by appearance? Judge what? Judge whether the person is good or bad? Or judge that the shirt they are wearing is indeed orange? Do people make judgments about other peoples' dress styles? How do you mean? Certainly I judge whether or not it's a style I like or would wear; does that "judgment" effect how I treat them?

As I stated above, I think it is most common that people will judge first (before even seeing a person), and then look for clues to classify people in to their ready-made judgments. Will they use clothing as a clue to how to classify them? Of course. People begin to classify upon the first contact; more often than not, they see (a person's appearance) far before they hear (what they say, what they believe, how they act). If they discover later that the person's appearance didn't give them all the facts, they will re-classify a person as suits them. Very rarely will someone actually reverse a judgment they have passed upon a group of people.

Is it true that you shouldn't? Is it okay to do so? Again, the question is "judge" in what sense of the word. If you mean "judge" in the manner of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, well, now you've opened up a religious question. All moral questions come back to a person's religious beliefs (or anti-religious beliefs).

If you mean classify, then I would say that anyone who is classifying would be wise not to limit themselves to only one criteria. If someone means to classify, I would think that appearance (clothing) would be a perfectly reasonably place to start, especially since that's usually the first data one gets. Of course, if one first comes in contact with a person over the phone, they will start out by classifying your voice, your speech mannerisms, your personality, and goodness knows what else. (Who, besides me, imagines the person on the other end of the line, and most particularly when you don't know who it is on the other line? Your mind tries to fill in the rest of the missing information. So it is when you see someone first. Your mind sees the appearance, and tries to fill in the rest of the missing data.)

A lot of people get irked by being "classified", particularly on the basis of appearance. Some people feel they shouldn't be judged by what they look like, but only what they act like (note: isn't how you dress is part of how you act?). Some people think that it is very judgmental to judge people. Some people think they are too unique to be "classified". Some people don't mind being classified, as long as they're classified correctly. And some people really couldn't care less what other people think of them.

My advice to people who don't like being classified is to be weird. I don't mean "weird" as in "shocking", or weird as in "weird just like everyone else". Weird people are people who don't fit into most of the standard categories. Weird people are strange simply because people don't understand them. Weird people do get classified; they get classified into the "weird" category. This is like that bulging "Miscellaneous" file in your cabinet. Everyone who is classified as "weird" goes together simply because they don't go with anyone else. This means that you get into that happy gray zone where the person has classified you ("Weird, man, really weird."), but still has no clue what you are like.

I am weird.

And you probably figured that out without ever needing to see me.


Blogger Linscee said...

I just found your blog and am enjoying it immensely. I wanted to comment on this discussion (which I commented on at the other website) because I felt that the original question was blurring definitions. The original question and the reworked question were not even remotely the same. Asking if it's true that you can't judge a book by its cover is not the same as asking if we make judgments based on people's dress styles. Perhaps she realized her error and changed the question. Of course we make judgments based on people's appearances, that doesn't mean it's ok. But in answer to the original question, we are often incorrect in our assumptions. Therefore, we shouldn't do it.

I would like to be filed under miscellaneous! :)

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Diego Ramirez Mota said...

Hey lady! You are crazy!

5:01 PM  
Blogger Tatterdemalion said...


Thank you for letting me know you enjoy my blog. Every once in a while, it seems like too much hassel to keep it going. Comments like yours let me know people are reading it and getting something out of it, and that's encouraging.

I think I saw your response to her question on the message board! ;)


I know. And you said as much once before. Did you think something had changed, or are you amused by stating the obvious? ;)

4:23 PM  

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