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updated: 10/14/2011 8:13 AM

Snap judgments are necessary, but sometimes wrong

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We all make snap judgments about people -- it is a necessary social skill.

We run into dozens of people each day, and we won't have time to get to know them. But we will have to decide how to interact with them.

For example, there is the guy stuck next to me in the traffic jam. He looks intense and upset, is changing lanes aggressively and driving way too fast for conditions. I am going to conclude that he is not someone I want to challenge for the space that just opened up in front of me.

On the other hand, let's say I encounter this same guy behind the counter at the copy store. He smiles, offers me his hand, and says "Good morning, how can I help you?" Same guy, but he sure seems a lot safer.

Sometimes we don't wait to make our judgments based on what people do, but on how they look. A few weekends ago I was shopping with my wife at a West suburban outlet mall. This is a great place for people watching. You will see every ethnic, linguistic and cultural group present in the metropolitan area all acting on a common goal: the pursuit of bargains.

I was taking a break from my job of nodding my head approvingly at each purchase and was sitting on a bench out in the mall. These are long benches, so they are always shared with one or two other people. My particular bench mate happened to be a young man who was easy to judge based on appearance: Spiked hair; low-slung, baggy jeans; a tight, sleeveless T-shirt displaying conspicuously muscled arms and copious tattoos of barbed wire, writhing reptiles and dripping blood. It all pointed to somebody who wasn't going to be all that open to casual conversation.

I suspect when he saw me, he also saw somebody who is pretty easy to stereotype. I look pretty much like your average, middle-aged suburban white guy. He probably figured I wasn't particularly looking for a conversation with him, either. We occupied our opposing ends of the bench, leaving the middle open like some no man's land between opposing armies. I read my book, and he listened to his iPod.

Seemingly oblivious to this arrangement, an elderly woman appeared and settled into the space between us. She seemed somewhat agitated. She sat rigidly erect and scanned the surrounding storefronts as if in search of something. Then -- to everyone's surprise, I'm sure -- she turned to the young man at the other end of the bench and asked "Do you know where the restrooms are?"

Was she crazy? This guy looked like he would just as likely bite her head off as help her. I tensed a bit, thinking I might have to get involved to keep her from getting bullied.

He rose to his rather intimidating height and looked down on her with a scowl on his face. "Gee, lady, I'm not sure," he said in a surprisingly soft voice. He looked around. "Oh, they're right over there." He pointed behind her. Then he offered her his hand to help her up from the bench.

Just then, an attractive young woman holding a little girl's hand came out of a nearby clothing store. Seeing her dad, the little girl broke free, ran over and jumped into his arms. The dad, of course, was my bench mate.

He must have caught my smile out of the corner of his eye. He made eye contact with me and smiled in return. "Doesn't get any better than this, man," he said.

OK, now and then we all need to make snap judgments about people we encounter. On the other hand, maybe we all need to be ready to be wrong sometimes, too.

• The Rev. Ken Potts' book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available through book retailers.

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