Would You Sit Next To Me?

This post isn’t about systems thinking at all - I just wanted to share something that happened to me yesterday, because it provides an insight into the way that people make erroneous assumptions based on appearance and their own prejudices.

Every year, police officers have to undergo self-defence refresher training. My course was yesterday, so instead of travelling on the train with a jacket over my uniform as usual, I was dressed in tracksuit bottoms, trainers, a hoody and a baseball cap. Here I am in the picture…

I got on the train at the first stop and it was pretty empty. I sat at a table with four seats around it and started messing on my phone to relieve the boredom of the journey (I get bored easily).

As we stopped at various stations the train began to fill up. I was still messing on my phone and not really paying much attention to my surroundings, but soon became aware that the other three seats around my table were still empty. I thought that was a bit odd as people usually go for the table seats, but didn’t really think much more about it at that stage.

At the next station I noticed that some people initially turned into my section of the carriage then turned around and went along it the other way, looking for seats. I also realised the train was getting quite full. One man actually stopped momentarily in the aisle next to my table, presumably about to sit on one of the three empty seats, then almost tripped himself up as he took one look at me and instantly changed his mind, scurrying away further down the carriage.

By the time the train reached its destination I was still the only person sitting at that table. The train was packed full of men and women of all ages and ethnicities and there were even people standing! Still, no one had wanted to sit near me. As I hadn’t forgotten to wash that morning, wasn’t talking to myself or doing anything else unusual or offensive that might deter people, I can only presume that other passengers wanted to avoid me as a result of judging me by my clothing or general appearance. I don’t get that reaction when I’m in my usual attire of white shirt, black trousers and civvy jacket.

I was mulling this over as I exited the train. I’m the same guy underneath whatever it is I’m wearing on a particular day and I actually think I’m a decent sort of chap. The previous day I had stopped to help at a traffic accident whilst off duty; not because I’m a copper but because it’s in my nature. Those people were happy to see me. Would they have sat next to me on the train though? Would you?

Obviously this incident was at the very, very thinnest edge of discriminatory behaviour and has hardly left me mentally scarred. It does make you wonder about your own prejudices though.

On the way up the stairs at the train station I was a few steps behind a middle-aged lady who went through the door at the top, but then waited and held it open for me. I was pleasantly surprised - judging by the reactions of my fellow passengers I thought that of all the people she would probably want to get away from me as quickly as possible.

It dawned on me then that I’d made my very own erroneous assumption based on appearance. No-one’s immune. Check yourself.

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About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I have a big problem with numerical targets, unnecessary bureaucracy, and anything else that stops police officers from providing the best possible service. I believe that by adopting a systems approach, policing can be transformed beyond the wildest expectations of many.
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11 Responses to Would You Sit Next To Me?

  1. Nosap Ience says:

    Great blog! Been there and have to admit, sadly, to doing it deliberately. All in the name of science of course. What you’re describing is called the fundamental attribution error and there’s tonnes to read from a scholarly Google. FAE is genetically built in to all of us for some very good reasons, to protect us and conserve valuable cognitive energy, but as you describe so perfectly, there are unconscious side effects. Basically, you understand your own context, the things around you that effect you eg wearing scruffies on a training day. But other people can’t possibly know the contextual issues and it would be a waste of effort to keep trying to work it out for other people. So your “back brain” chips in and assigns a stereotype to your character, as being this or that type of person. The most dangerous form of FAE is leadership development, institutionalising the stereotypes!

    I would have sat by you!

  2. tactical says:

    I would have sat by you and although I agree that we are programmed to perhaps errouneously at times assess the potentiality of danger and definitely we do learn to be prejudicial from an early age mostly due to the environment we grew up in, I think it was more the expression on your face/in your eyes that put people off. I have done this as an experiment myself and to put people on the spot, i.e. I first attend certain places in my baggy scruffy hooded gear only then to return in high heels and well groomed. However, I noticed over a substantial period of time that if you wear a smile (and manners) regardless of what you are wearing it changes a lot of things. If throughout the journey you gave that kind of look it probably told people to stay away, you wanted to stay alone. People will have immediately registered as “he is trouble”. Or “nope I am not going to sit there and be told all his problems…” . Hope you did not get too upset. It is a great experiment but on the wrong day it can get you down. Not everyone has a caring, open nature

    • Fair point but the picture with the evil stare was taken just before I got off the train on the way back in the afternoon, moments after I thought of writing a blog post about the morning’s event. When I was being roundly rejected by my early-morning peers my eyes were more bleary than anything else and I spent almost the whole journey messing with my phone. (Interesting point you make about the high heels but I think I’ll give that a miss…)

  3. tactical says:

    not evil just troubled/thoughtfvl. Don’t forget that body language says an awful lot even about you, so much so that the old dear opened the door for you. Yes I definitely think that heels aren’t for you, you’d break a leg for a starter…but I intended to point out how people reactions change even with the smallest detail say a tie or heels. No point mentioning the uniform as that is a hell of a give away in itself! However, you’ll have noticed how people react to that too, immediately jumping to conclusions.

  4. Blue Eyes says:

    Interesting post as ever!

    There is definite unconscious stereotyping. More enlightened people do better at pushing it into the lower part of the brain but it is probably quite difficult to get rid of altogether. Maybe if we all had some of our best friends as “chavs”??!

    I am also interested in people’s own behaviour when dressed differently. I definitely notice that when I wear a tie at work I feel more professional. On a mufti day I feel more relaxed. I think others are the same.

    Also, when we feel more or less identifiable our behaviour changes. In a group for example we feel like we can act up whereas we would never do the same thing on our own.

    I would not have avoided sitting next to you if it meant standing up. Also, I might have recognised you and gone all star-struck.

  5. daveincanada says:

    “..people make erroneous assumptions based on appearance and their own prejudices.”
    True, but people also make correct assumptions based on appearance and their own prejudices. We’d all like an infinite amount of time and information to make a decision (or assumption if you prefer) but sometimes all we have is appearance and our own previous experience (or prejudice if you prefer).

  6. Sean Flanagan says:

    I would not only sit beside you, but as an act of trust, for old times’ sake, sit by the window – assuming you didn’t mind and took the adjacent aisle seat.

  7. Sean Flanagan says:

    I think a better question would be “Would you sit next to me if I was dressed like this and you didn’t know me?”, because I reckon that’s what this post is about, am I right? Can I be honest? I wouldn’t if I could avoid it, not because of the way you look or the way you’re dressed, but because I like space. Ideally the carriage would be empty – I hate overcrowded spaces. But since I know you’re a nice man, I would commit that very rare act of trust I mentioned which I don’t extend to many people outside of my family, i.e. sitting between you and the window, knowing you wouldn’t do anything to hurt me. We could do a lot of catching up. Besides, if anyone came in who really did mean trouble, then at least we’d be together and do our best to protect each other. How does that strike you?

    • Very kind of you to say so mate.

      • Sean Flanagan says:

        You’re very welcome Si. I’ve experienced similar treatment in life myself, people keeping their distance from me, giving me funny looks and gossiping about me under their breath. At school, in my gym, to name but two places. I’ve made up my mind that I really don’t care any more what people like that think. If people keep away from me at the gym, then at least I’ll have lots of space in which to exercise. I’m proud of who I am and nothing will ever change that. Anyway it’s nice to see a relatively recent picture of you after 17 or 18 years, even if you do look fed up! :)

  8. Sean Flanagan says:

    I’ve stood up to people in the past. For example, last year I reduced one lad to tears by flashing my Autism Alert card at him, and told another lad who said to another bloke that he could smack me, to either put up or shut up!

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