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Wednesday, April 29, 2009


We all have different prisms we view humanity through. Because I never outgrew my chosen sport of swimming, one of the first things that pops into my head, unbidden, upon meeting someone new, is what kind of swimmer they would have made. How tall is he? How strong? What is his wingspan? How lean? How wide are the shoulders? How big are the hands or feet? What is the lung capacity? When I meet someone who is short and stout, that thought may not occur, but often, when I meet someone rangy and athletic, but who didn't swim, I'll think, hmm, what a waste. This is of course a completely silly and useless response, and the real waste probably would have been if he had grown obsessed with the sport, as I did. I know how utterly ridiculous my reaction is. But I still can't help it, that's my automatic response upon meeting a new person.

Another way I judge people is on the narcissism/sociopathy scale. Nice guys (I'm using the male pronoun for brevity's sake here, but I judge everyone this way) are arrayed at one end of the scale. They tend to be shy, loyal, quick to take blame, nervous, steadfast, and often, boring. Sociopaths are at the other end of the spectrum: they are impulsive, dishonest, disloyal, and totally narcissistic -- as well as often being very charming, even electrifying. You don't want to get close to one, or you will eventually get burned, one way or another. Nice guys make the best friends, of course, although sociopaths can be more fun in the (very) short run, if you can escape the inevitable fallout that accompanies them. You can also be sure that in the long run you will end up hating them.

Being aware of someone's character (as opposed to what kind of swimmer they would have made) is of course a useful -- and also fair -- way to judge them.

There are a few prisms we all look through. The first two things you see when you meet someone new are race and gender. These determine all sorts of attitudes that we take. No need to expand on this, these attitudes are pretty much self-evident, whether or not you admit them.

The next thing we see is attractiveness. Psychologists say if the person is of the opposite sex (or the same sex if we're gay), we make a judgment within the first couple seconds about whether we would want to sleep with that person. (That sounds about right.) There are people who say that they are not affected by such superficial things as appearance, but those who are unaware of the effect -- or deny it --seem to be the ones who are in fact affected the most (as well as the most affected).

One thing that many people judge on is status, or at least its outward manifestations. This is why people buy fancy cars, etc. I worked on Wall Street for twelve (long) years, so I know the extent to which others judge on net worth. And I must admit, I wasn't entirely immune. If I knew that someone had, say, over a hundred million, he did seem to have a certain aura.

One outward manifestation of status is clothes. There are those who take on a sort of reverse snobbery regarding dress, like billionaire Steven Bing, who wears a t-shirt no matter where he goes (I once saw him dressed that way at a wedding). This is his way of saying, "I'm a billionaire, so I don't have to bother to dress up for anyone." But he is the exception. Of course, status considerations aside, there are people who pay a great deal of attention to fashion. If you, like me, feel that if 99% of a shirt is intact why fret about the missing 1%, you should be aware that you will be judged harshly by these people.

There are many who see others in terms of what those others can do for them. I've devoted enough of this blog to those types already, and will not expand on them here.

Most people will judge you by your intelligence, though there are several ways of doing so. Some people will judge you simply by how smart you are. They will measure you by the quality of your arguments, by your memory, and by your perception. There are also the academic snobs, who prefer to look at your academic degrees, and where you obtained them. It's always been my impression that people impressed by degrees are seldom particularly intelligent themselves.

There are those who know a lot about certain fields and judge others by how much they know about their particular field. The more a person judges others by their knowledge about his own specialty, the more narcissistic that person tends to be. ("Oh, [sniff sniff] he knows nothing at all about wines.")

Another prism we all view others through is their sense of humor. Everybody enjoys someone who can make them laugh.

A lot of people judge others through the prism of politics. Whether or not others have the proper politically correct attitudes (defined as your own stances) will determine whether those people are suitable friendship material.

Poet James Merrill once said, the entire world is French or German. By French he meant artsy, liberal, free thinking, accepting. Others might refer to this as the feminine impulse. By German he meant ordered, disciplined, realistic, and tough. This might be referred to as the masculine impulse.

Most of us prefer to hang out with people of similar outlook.

And most of us, unless we are exploitative by nature, want to hang out with people of similar temperament as well.

I suspect there are a lot of prisms out there I'm unaware of, some of which may even be as silly as mine. But reactions that wacky are hard to anticipate.

You can be my friend as long as you're not a sociopath.

And, well, if you're built for swimming.


Anonymous said...


You made me realize why Madoff is really a useless piece of shit. He's short and stocky! Hopefully your laughing.


John Craig said...

Stu -- Here's an interesting fact for you: Madoff used to be a butterflyer when he was in high school. True. Just found that out this week. I'll send you the article via email.

Anonymous said...

"Another way I judge people is on the narcissism/sociopathy scale.."

I enjoy studying people around me. Sort of a hobby. Their opinions and beliefs, what makes them happy or sad, what triggers their actions, why are some so alike and some so different. Yet most people remain a mystery to me, even within my own family. You seem to be quite sure of your opinions. So when you meet someone, how long does it take for a person to pass/fail a sociopath test?

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thank you for your comment(s). (I assume you're the same person who just left a comment on the "personal trainers" post.)

That's a very good question. The best answer I can give you is that it varies. Usually, the smarter a person is, the better they are at hiding their character, and while you can usually get a sense of their intelligence in fairly short order, a read on their character takes longer. Less intelligent people -- of both good and bad character -- tend to give themselves away sooner (on both the intelligence and character fronts). It also varies with what is at stake at the time. Sometimes a really vicious sociopath who is really brimming with ill will can reveal himself right off the bat, just by his vituperativeness. But if they have some reason to curry favor with you, or some good reason to hide what they are up to, they can put up a convincing nice guy act for a while.

Yes, I am confident in my opinions on sociopathy. It's been an obsession of mine since I was 25 (when I was hoodwinked by a sociopath, and I knew nothing about them at the time). I actually wrote an entire manuscript on the subject, but my agent was unable to sell it; the main comment he got back from publishers was that I had no official credentials in the field. But it is an obsession, and there's nothing we learn more about than our obsessions. (Especially when one has done a lot of "involuntary field work," as I've done.)

I don't claim to be an expert in all areas of psychology. I was remarkably naive until very recently about the subject of autism. And there are plenty of areas I know almost nothing about. But I do understand sociopathy.