Fuzzy Limits

In high school my Physics teacher asked a very intriguing question: How do you know when you’ve reached a limit?

The answer, of course, is that you don’t. You know when you’ve exceeded a limit. Even at the limit of strength, a string remains unbroken, a compressed spring retains its resiliency; an ID is still 100% good the day before its expiration, but utterly useless the day after. Something on a slope with a specified coefficient of friction will not slide at a maximum angle “X” but will slide if the angle goes above that value. And so on. What’s the common key here? All these things are objectively quantifiable and predictable.

People Have Fuzzy Limits

Unlike the above examples, people are not inanimate things with immovable limits. Depending on their mood, experiences, memories and past associations, likes, dislikes, hormones, their being rested or not, their nutritional intake, stress level, and myriad other factors, peoples’ limits while interacting with others are… fuzzy.

Take jokes for example. As the late comedian Milton Berle said, “Laughter is an instant vacation” and I fully endorse this view; I am a firm believer in the idea that life is too serious to take seriously. Even between longtime friends, however, one person can hear and think a joke is hysterically funny, but in sharing it with another, the other person may not appreciate it. A joke about divorce may rile a person who, unknown to the joker, has just been told by their spouse that their marriage is over. So many factors go into whether someone likes, or doesn’t like, humor that there is no one-size-fits-all in this.

In a similar vein, citing the workplace, interactions are both necessary and yet ripe for misunderstanding especially as people grow to know each other and relax. As an example, take the universal “Harassment Training” that is part of every company’s new hire orientation. Now, I need to make clear that I am not advocating harassment of any sort; whether racial, sexual, religious, or anything else, making disparaging statements – open or veiled – about another as an individual or member of a group is absolutely out of bounds. Nor, to cite sexual harassment specifically, are comments about another’s physical attributes, sexual proclivities, hypothesized “amorous behaviors”, etc. – let alone, of course, leveraging power differentials for “favors”. Unacceptable, period. No exception.

But people are people, with fuzzy limits. A comment, of any nature, from one speaker that might be taken at face value by one listener on one day, could be taken completely differently by another listener, or even the first listener on a different day. For example, a genuine, spontaneous, and truly innocent compliment about a unique and/or noticeable broach, scarf, or tie can be taken as a wonderful compliment, or it might be considered unwanted or intrusive. Thus, even as people speaking need to keep in mind what they say, especially in a professional environment, listeners need to have a tolerance for what others say (given the potential for such a comment to be innocent; many comments have that potential, but some will clearly be beyond the pale and I opine that the latter are typically very clear).

The Flea Market Rule                                                                                                   

I love going to yard sales and flea markets (I keep hoping for something like this to happen to me). At the latter, I haven’t been to one where, somewhere, there hasn’t been the sign “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” And so it is with human interactions as well, especially at the beginning when people first meet.

Take, as an example, interviews. I was speaking with a recruiter recently, and they described a person they were attempting to place at a company. Their client rejected the candidate, citing that the person came across as “too aggressive”. Upon being told that feedback, the candidate altered their presentation to be more low-key… and was rejected at their next interview as “not dynamic enough”.

One man’s confidence is another man’s cocky. Is a person humble, or uncertain? Dynamic and enthusiastic, or aggressive? Accomplished and proud, or arrogant? Low-key by nature, or disinterested? A delegator who knows how to manage their work load, or a slacker who sloughs their tasks off on others? Bubbly and effusive, or a gabby motormouth? Diplomatic, or wishy-washy? Straight-forward, or abrasive? And so on.

There is the Halo Effect, where a person reacts subconsciously to like someone who acts, dresses, or otherwise presents as similar to themselves. Likewise, one person can engender a sense of like or dislike in another simply because they connect to a memory totally unrelated to them. And first impressions, formed in seconds, can determine the outcome of an interview before skills, accomplishments, and job history are even opened as topics of the discussion.

Beginnings Are Unstable

As people meet for the first time, whether in interviews, first dates, or any other venue, the possibilities are rife for misunderstandings and misperceptions. (Sometimes, thinking about this, I am amazed people ever form friendships and relationships given all the potential for missteps and snap-judgments.)

Ultimately, people are the way they are. I’d rather deal with someone who presents honestly than a person who tries to pass themselves off to me based on what they think I want to see and hear. And in the quest for harmony – whether at work, at home, or life in general – we ignore the dynamic interchange that comes from others who have different personalities, backgrounds, interests, faiths, etc. For it is from that intellectual and personality diversity, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, that we grow both as professionals and people.

No Telepaths Here

Perhaps the most famous telepath in science fiction these days is Professor Charles Xavier, leader of the superhero team The X-Men (Marvel Comics). A mutant with the ability to read minds and ascertain the true thoughts of a person if he chooses to use his powers, misunderstanding is impossible. Similarly able to read people, Deanna Troi, a character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, had the ability to read others’ emotions due to her being a hybrid between a human and a telepathic Betazoid.

But we here in reality have no such abilities, thus the possibilities for misunderstanding are legion. So as you meet new people in life, whether socially, at work, or if you are an interviewer or a candidate, may your minds be open to the diversity of others, and may your limits and judgments be fuzzy.


© 2014, David Hunt, PE

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