When I speak on interviewing to high school kids or to the displaced homemakers at the local Women's Resource Center where I volunteer, I typically start with an exercise that goes like this:
I'll come to the front of the room and before I say anything about the workshop or why I'm there I ask everyone to take a out pen and paper. I ask them to write down their answers to the following questions, being sure to tell them that they will NOT have to share their answers with me, so please be honest. I ask them:
- How old do you think I am?
- Do you think I am homosexual or heterosexual?
- Do you think I am single, married, living with someone, separated, divorced, or widowed?
- Do I have kids? If so, how many and what do you think are their ages?
- What's the highest level of education you think I've obtained?
- What religious group, if any, do you think I'm a member of?
- How much money do you think I earn?
- What's my ethnic background?
- What part of the country was I raised in?
- Have I travelled outside the U.S.?
- Do I own my own home?
- Do I have a car?
- Do I speak a second language? If so, what?
- Then I ask them if, from the two minutes I've been standing in front of them they think that a) I have worthwhile advice to impart to them and b) if they think they'll enjoy class with me.
Then I'll ask the class if they think they got every question right. The answer is always no. But, I emphasize, from pretty much just looking at me and listening to me say a few sentences, they hold these guesses--or opinions--on me on these various topics. Heads nod.
"Is this fair?" I'll ask the group.
"No!" is the answer.
"But is this reality and something you have to deal with?" I ask.
"Yes," they say.
"Yes," I affirm, and we go from there.
The point is to show how snap judgements are made by people, and then we cover ways to overcome some of those judgements (through non-verbal body language, eye contact, dress for success, etc.). The question I usually trip people up on is the kids question. Most people answer that they think I have kids and look surprised when I tell them I don't.
What has become "disturbing" about this exercise is the age question. I'll always give them my age to see who came close and historically people would always underestimate my age. So when I was 28, people would guess 23. Or when I was 32, people would guess 26.
When I spoke to the high school kids on Tuesday and said, "I'm 35," most raised their hands, cheering that they got it right. One girl sighed, "Oh, I was close. I guessed 36."
Regardless of my drama (I came home and took two Dove Dark Chocolate nuggets to ease the pain), it's a good exercise to do. I encourage people in my classes to start paying attention to people in restaurants, airports, malls, or wherever, and see if they can recognize some of the snap judgements they're making just based on appearance. And then I ask them to remember this exercise and that not everything is as it appears.
We're all guilty of making inferences, but it's helpful to at least have some conscious recognition that you're doing it.