Blindfolded

4
May
2008

Many years ago in college, my friends and I would discuss an idea for a party that we never executed. The idea was that at the door to the party, everyone would be required to put on a blindfold, and spend the next couple of hours at the party meeting and talking to people without the aid of sight. Then at one point in the party, everyone would take off their blindfold and see the people that they had been talking to. The idea of course was that we all make a significant number of judgements about people based on nothing other than their appearance, and it would be a refreshing exercise to interact without this particular filter. Would we have picked the same people to talk to had the blindfold not been present? Or would we have retreated to our tried and true visual shorthand?

In a similar way, I have noticed that here in Mexico I have on a kind of blindfold, albeit linguistic. Since I am still in the fairly early stages of learning the language, a lot of subtlety related to slang, nuance, class, gesture and the like is lost on me. Because of this, the friends I have made here are a pretty divergent bunch. I am not at all certain that they would like or even get along with each other. I was aware of this phenomenon in France many years ago when I was in a homologous situation learning the ins and outs of the language. It takes a number of years in a culture before we make shorthand judgements of people. I am probably applying some of my American ones to people in a possibly inappropriate way here (although less inappropriate than applying these same filters in India for example, as Mexicans and Americans firmly share Western culture).

There is no doubt that we develop this shorthand over many years and for many good reasons as a kind of social self-protection mechanism. But it is just as true that we develop many of these traits for less than savory reasons, to bring us closer to the people that match our backgrounds, race, ethnicity, political world view, gender, religion or other.  Human beings have a tendency to want to have their identities reinforced, strengthened, justified and validated. But look how much we are missing in the process. Although the effort is larger, sometimes the greatest rewards come from reaching out to the other, the unfamiliar, or even the frightening or hated. Being here in the preliminary phase of cultural imprint and understanding, I am lucky indeed to be wearing the blindfold.