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Discuss: From the Other Side

How you see yourself and how others see you are often two completely different things.  Recently, I had to tell an acquaintance whose dating profile described her as carefree and low-maintenance, that a woman who carries a butane-powered travel curling iron in her evening bag and keeps a worry stone on her desk is neither.  She was disgusted with me…at first.

After 36 hours of being furious with me, she came around.  Apparently, she asked a few more people to look at her profile and many of them had the same reaction.  She apologized, and we moved on.  But this raises an interesting question: How many of us know how others truly see us?

It probably never occurs to most people to ask their nearest and dearest to describe them in one word, but the answer can be illuminating.  It can also be dangerous.

During my freshman year of college, a psychology professor devised an exercise he called The Ultimate Truth.  It was a free association game played using flash cards.  Each student was given 20 cards.  On the front were the names of our classmates, the backs were blank.  On the back, we free-associated one adjective about each person and when everyone was done, all of the cards with your name on the front were handed back to you.

Imagine the verbal brawl that occurred at the next class when we discussed the findings as a group.  One guy had been described as a drunk by more than half of the class.  And a sophomore couple who had been dating since orientation, were shocked to learn that she found him untrustworthy and he thought she was selfish.  Ouch.

The Professor included himself in the lesson and was not the least bit surprised by what he read.  Over six years and hundreds of students, the most common answer was flighty.  Far from upset, he was always impressed by how no one held back or tried to stroke his ego, which was the whole point of the exercise.

The Professor’s lesson: People usually don’t know that others think of them, and the majority don’t really want to know.

So here’s the question: Have you ever asked the people closest to you what they think about you?  And would you even want to know?

P.S. Over the years several of my co-workers and friends have either intentionally or inadvertently described me as some variation of “intense.”  It was a little jarring the first time, since I hadn’t really thought of myself that way.  But, you know what, they’re right.

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  1. KLo says:

    Just asked my husband & mother for the first 3 adjectives to describe me. I got smart, controlling, talkative, energetic, argumentative & sweet. I was pretty ok with that.

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  2. MM says:

    Interesting to think about – I've always thought of myself as shy, since that's certainly what I was in middle school, but I descibed myself as shy to some co-workers recently, and they were shocked. I guess it's a good thing that I've changed since middle school!

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  3. Billie says:

    This is a tough one. My instinctual reaction is I don't care what people think about me and therefore, don't want to know. But in reality, most of us really do care what people think but we're terrified to know. I think that it would be good to know how people that are close to me perceive me because there could be something that I'm doing unconsciously and am able to change, thus improving the relationship and possibly improving how I am perceived in other environments like in the workplace. But, the truth hurts and It takes a lot of nerve to tell someone what you really think of them so I guess I'll just have to hope that people see me as I see me.

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  4. Charleigh says:

    I would really like it if people were more honest with me about what they thought of me. It would be enlightening, as well as help me self-improve.

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  5. Amy says:

    Intense = scary for a lot of people but exciting for others, and let's face it, intense people have the most drive to get things done in life!

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  6. Victoria says:

    I once asked my two best friends what they liked most and best about me. The answers were eye-opening and upsetting. This was a decade ago (or more?) and I don't really remember what they said they didn't like about me (something about rushing around when I cooked?). They both gave variations on the same theme for what they liked best: that I didn't care what anyone thought of me, that I did my own thing. That's simply not true. I care way more than is healthy about what others think, and the fact that I had hidden that so successfully from my friends made me sad. Not only did they not know me as well as I hoped/thought they did – the thing they most loved about me was false!

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  7. E says:

    I think I. like many people, have a “public” personality and a “real” personality. At work, I try to be friendly, engaging, and social, because that's the culture at my workplace. My colleagues have described me as “talkative,” “diplomatic,” “assertive,” “direct,” “perfectionist,” “cynical” and “loud.” It's true that I have a loud voice and am a straight shooter, and as an attorney, I have to be both assertive and diplomatic. However, I am actually extremely introverted, and find having to be “on” all the time at work to be so exhausting that I have to be in silence and read books or practice yoga for a few hours every night at home to rejuvenate. I see myself as introverted, conflict-averse (I could never be a litigator!), somewhat high-maintenance, selfish insofar as I need a lot of me time, and extremely pragmatic. My friends tend to describe me in the same terms as I describe myself, but they would add that I can be snarky and even mean sometimes (true).

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  8. alex says:

    This past May, three weeks before moving in with my current flatmate, we had a HUGE blowout where she essentially told me that I was a push-over who won't succeed until I “grow a pair”. It ended in tears, naturally, with me dishing out her flaws as well, until I got so angry that I started perusing the sublease section of Craigslist (while seething and maybe a little drunk — not good!).

    After a few days of giving each other the cold shoulder, we both realized that there was some merit to what we had said about each other. She apologized, I apologized, and we both pledged to work on ourselves as long as we recognized progress in the other person. We've never been closer in our two years of friendship.

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  9. Jessica says:

    I got dedicated from my boyfriend, competent from my mother, and perky from my sister. haha. What an interesting exercise. Maybe I'll ask someone who's not obligated to love me. ­čśë

    But to answer your question: I always wonder how people perceive me, especially those I'm not particularly close with, but I've never been brave enough to ask.

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  10. Anne says:

    I was shocked– SHOCKED— when an old roommate told me I was “girly.” I'd always envisioned myself as a tough, western gal so that completely burst the bubble. But after telling my mom, my sister, and a couple friends, they thought it was hilarious that I wasn't aware of that perception– to them it was so obvious. I ultimately embraced that part of myself– which is absolutely, positively, and predominantly there. It also made me hyperaware of the line between “girly” and “prissy”– which no one describes me as, and I'd sooner die than be … but hey, we've all gotta draw lines somewhere : )

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  11. L says:

    I agree with E on the point that what others notice depends on the circumstances. I do “control” my personality in some of the same ways E describes; however, others' perception of the same “version” of my personality also depends on context. For example, at work I seem much girlier and feminine than I do in a group of my sorority sisters, in which I seem pragmatic and serious.

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  12. CynthiaW says:

    I'm tempted to ask this question on Facebook – but am probably too terrified of the results to actually do it. I have had people tell me that I'm “really intense”, which is true, but I don't know if I want to know other stuff.

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  13. Allison says:

    Belle, I get intense all the time too. There was actually a guy in college who said he was scared of me, his description, “you're an alpha female.” We are friends now, but I still look back at that and laugh.

    July 29, 2011/Reply
  14. The Slapdash Sewist says:

    I always get “smart.” Boring.

    July 31, 2011/Reply
  15. Whitney says:

    After a particularly bad break-up in college, I asked a group of old flames if they thought I was difficult. Most placated me with a simple no. However, one guy without missing a beat responded with, “No, you're just immature and unnecessarily confrontational.” Really, he was right.

    August 2, 2011/Reply