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…
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.