Couldn’t Be

29 Apr

It’s become a trope in this day of video news and catchy headlines: a stunning talent show performance, executed by someone you wouldn’t think could pull it off. From Susan Boyle to the dancing grandma to a singing factory worker, people love hearing about unexpected talents and surprising finesse.

I often find these videos disappointing, and their headlines disheartening. I get that headline-writers need to get people to click, and news channels need to get people to watch. But the videos’ headlines tend to suggest that the person at hand shouldn’t be talented, based on some sort of demographic or physical factor.  It’s one thing when we’re talking about 9 year-old virtuosos or 90 year-olds who move more nimbly than a teenager. But it’s a completely different situation when we’re talking about people who wear sensible shoes rather than stilettos, or don’t have all their front teeth, or work a blue-collar job. Why do we expect so little of them? Why don’t we expect them to have talent? If someone filmed you doing your top talent, then gave it a caption, would you want to be labeled as unexpectedly talented? Would you want the focus to be on how unfit-for-the-job you look at first glance? Or would you want the focus to be on your actual, impressive talent?

We’re always so surprised when people defy our expectations. And this extends far, far beyond things like talent shows. How can that unmarried woman be happy, we ask? How can a hermit thrive without social interaction? But as a whole, we’re not really that great at understanding the people around us. We jump to conclusions, we make quick judgements, and we’re often very wrong. We assume we understand why people do what they do, how they got how they are, and whether they like where they’re at. We make rash judgements about a person’s abilities or worth based on how they appear to us. We think we can tell who we’ll like, and who we won’t. We think we can tell who will be smart, talented, etc.

Sometimes I play a game where I come up with a backstory for the people I see around me. I think about where they’re from, what they do, what they’re like. But I also keep it in perspective: I’m making a bunch of assumptions, rooted in imagination rather than reality, and I know that I am probably 100% off base. And while it’s a good way to entertain myself in line at airport security, it’d be a shame to assume I could truly understand these people without ever talking to them or learning the true facts of their life. As the old adage goes: you just can’t judge a book by its cover.

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