When Albert and I sat down for tea last week he said, "I don't meet people very easily." This is most likely true. He is a good guy: responsible, thoughtful, intelligent, but an introvert. He appears to struggle with conversation, at least in the beginning. But I know him better than "the beginning," and know to value his quiet, often reflective ways.
If only others saw the friend, the man, that I do, I thought. I nodded, sipped my tea.
"I have a hard time connecting with people," Albert said. "Maybe it's my appearance."
What? I thought. We, as a modern people, don't base our connections with other people on looks, right? We aren't that shallow; we're more sophisticated, more rational, more thoughtful in our thinking, in our friendships than that.
Albert is wrong about himself, I determined. His appearance has nothing to do with anything.
"Albert, that's not true," I said. And Albert didn't respond. He didn't argue with me nor did he agree with me; he just sipped his drink and went silent, as if the admission was hard enough without me challenging his insight into himself.
Albert and I hugged, parted ways, went to our respective homes, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I had somehow hurt Albert even though my intentions were good, and I began to wonder: How much does our appearance shape how we are perceived? For Albert, is style more important in attracting potential friends because he is quiet, shy, reserved.
First appearance deceives many'Ovid
First impressions are made in an instant, made from the unconscious, made from a place within ourselves that is a vestige to our primitive past; yet, these first impressions may also keep us safe, help us to identify those we are most likely to connect with and those who we may benefit from knowing.
Could it be that my dear friend Albert suffers as a victim of a poor first impression due to his style? Psychologists believe that first impressions are holistic in nature, meaning they include judgment about the whole of the person that is immediately visible or knowable: facial expression, tone of voice, body language, clothing, hairdo, greeting, stance, and the list continues but comes down to a person's "style."
And Albert does have a particular style: a distinct physical appearance, a specific manner of behaving, an affinity for gleaming white tennis shoes and collared blue-hued golf shirts and tapered jeans and Timex watches. His style is neat if not militaristic. On first impression, a person would probably note his buzzed head, the aforementioned outfit, his sullen facial expression (most of the time), body language that is drawn inward, such as his slumped shoulders and crossed arms.
How would that read to a person who doesn't know Albert?
And I realize Albert's appearance, his style, betrays him by hiding the sincere, genuine, unaffected man he really is deep, deep inside. Perhaps Albert's belief that he has a hard time meeting people because of his appearance has more validity to it than I was at first willing to accept or understand. And then I ask myself: What can Albert change to appear more welcoming to the people he meets, and what should he not change to remain true to himself?
Appearance rules the world'Friedrich Schiller
Now if I were to change Albert, the first thing to go would be the perfectly polished leather tennis shoes. I don't think those things were ever in style. But, my reasoning behind this is not solely based on fashion. The reason is this: the clothes a person chooses to wear convey a message about said person. In the case of Albert, his pristine tennis shoes, as well as his overly neat and precisely tucked in polo and pant combo, are not only out of fashion but tell the people meeting him that he is really uptight if not completely controlling. And there is some truth to this as Albert doesn't necessarily control others but is in strict control of himself at all times.
Why is Albert so intensely concerned with control? I ask myself. And I answer that it is fear of rejection from friendship and love, new and old. I see this fear each time he is introduced to someone new, is made to participate in a group, agrees to do something unfamiliar. His body language screams that he is uncomfortable and clinging to that control over himself that is essential for his survival: his head hangs low, no eye contact, folded arms. He literally squeezes his body together, making himself smaller and smaller and smaller to the point where he may disappear.
I watch, the next chance I get, to see if I'm accurate in my assessment. There are five of us gathered around the table in a booth at our favorite caf?. We have just finished a morning run, one of Albert's favorite activities. We are reminiscing on childhood misadventures. Our friend, Carol, remembers a brawl between her and her best friend that resulted in Carol getting clobbered in the head and her best friend breaking her finger via the head. We laugh in unison, sounding as happy and harmonious as the chimes of a church bell, as Carol describes how neither girl told on the other out of a sense of protection for each other. And then I notice Albert. He isn't laughing. He hasn't contributed a word. But the lack of sound is not what is causing his exclusion.
What is it that causes Albert not to connect with us? I ask myself.
He is staring at the table. His facial expression is one of extreme discomfort, and while the rest of are sandwiched together in our undersized booth, Albert has scooted away so that there is a space big enough that he won't bump elbows with James, the man sitting next to him.
And this brings me back to how Albert is perceived. It is an unending circle: Albert fears rejection and thus builds a fortress around himself through his controlled appearance, which even his friends struggle to penetrate. This causes Albert to feel more rejection and to cultivate his fear. As a result, Albert's appearance becomes stricter. Now not only is his appearance severe enough to put off his "friends" but the possibility of making a good first impression is almost hopeless. And then he feels more rejection and more fear and this causes him to build his fortress stronger: he tucks in the polo tighter, washes off all scuffs on his tennis shoes, buzzes his hair a little shorter, scowls harder.
I think about how Albert often describes himself to me as "apathetic" and "unfeeling." He is neither of these adjectives but tells himself he is. It is part of his control. And I realize that Albert does need to change his appearance because right now his appearance is not true to who he is. He is not an apathetic, unfeeling, uptight man He is an introvert. And his problem with meeting people is not that he is an introvert. Introverts, just like extroverts, have close friends and loving relationships. Besides, I know that other side of Albert'the one that shines with good qualities. And I know that his problem is exactly what he said it was: he has a hard time meeting people because of his appearance. His appearance is a fortress of control that allows him to keep most of his friends at a distance and his potential for new relationships out almost completely, when all he really wants is to connect.