Sizing People Up


A few months ago, I heard Pastor Dave Rolph start his Sunday morning teaching on Matthew 7-1:6 with an anecdote about people watching. Comments in his opening remarks included: “People watching. It’s fun. It’s really easy to read people and categorize them. But sometimes you can be really wrong.” To illustrate this, he told the following story:

One Sunday morning, when he was an Assistant Pastor at another church and he was with a group of Pastors who had gathered to count the Offering, he started talking about, Pastor Don, a widower on staff who had a new girlfriend. Other Pastors talked about how beautiful she was but Dave said, “Yeah, you know, but there’s something weird about her. The way she looks at you is kind of strange. You ever notice they always sit on the front row, like they just want to be seen? But the creepiest thing is, you guys, if you notice, when you’re up there praying at the pulpit, she starts to bow her head and then she just stares at you. She’s like obsessed with you the whole time you’re praying and then, right at the end of the prayer, she bows her head like she had her head bowed the whole time. That’s just weird.” Then, a couple of the other Pastors joined in agreement, saying, “Yeah, that’s strange!” Shortly after that, Pastor Don arrived to help with the counting. Of course, the other Pastors changed the subject and as they did that, Don mentioned, “My girlfriend, Leslie, because she’s deaf, …” With that, of course, the gossiping Pastors realized, as Pastor Dave said, “She sits on the front row because she reads lips! She stares at you while you’re praying because she’s reading your lips and she looks kind of funny because she’s just intently reading what it is that you’re trying to say.”

It sort of makes your skin crawl, when you get to the part of the story when it’s revealed that Leslie is deaf, doesn’t it? To the credit of Pastor Dave, he immediately confessed to the gossip session he had initiated. And, to the credit of both Pastor Don and Leslie (now Pastor Don’s Wife), they gracefully accepted Dave’s confession with humor. But, the story does vividly illustrate the point that, though people watching can be fun and it can seem easy to “size people up”, sometimes you can be really wrong. In this case, as a result of Dave’s confession, along with Don’s and Leslie’s grace, it still turned out to be kind of fun. But, all too often, that isn’t the result. Perhaps in the majority of cases, someone is mistreated inappropriately without even knowing why. And, when there is inappropriate mistreatment, once the reason becomes apparent, harshness and unloving relationships often result.

I have some dear friends, named Wayne and Cindy Shabaz, who are experts in Cross-Cultural Communication and Diversity Education. In their course, The Corporate Genome (SM TM), they dedicate a full lesson to Sizing People Up. Their research indicates that it takes the average person just five seconds to make this initial assessment and form an impression. Although this sizing up is quick and immediate, it can put a person in a box that they may never get out of. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who’s civil rights movement leadership is celebrated with a holiday this coming Monday, famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In addition to the need for not judging a person by the color of their skin, it is needful to not judge a person based on an initial impression of how they’re conducting themselves inside the skin they have. If we don’t discipline ourselves in this way, we’re likely to never be in a position to get to know the content of their character.


Filed under character, Culture, diversity, Education, Love

2 Responses to Sizing People Up

  1. Al Peffley

    I find quite often that some people who seem to be “stuck up” or unfriendly actually are, in reality, a very shy person inside. They use their body language as a shield against social interaction with people they do not know or trust upon initial contact. Once a person is identified by them to be loving and trust-worthy, they can be very friendly and conversational as a good friend for life, unless you betray their trust. We should be judged by our actions in life, not our first appearances to be beautiful and agreeable. Prejudice from personal relationship failures is a “box” few of us can recover from, in business or social relationships. We have all “…been there and done that”, as the saying goes.

    Our rumor mill comments help substantiate and fuel the false perceptions people have of one another and could possibly extend a bad personal reputation for a person’s lifetime. Anyone not of good will (evil and scheming) will use the rumors to destroy your character references and discredit you in a community that you have perceived influence in as a member. When I worked in Engineering after leaving Finance at Boeing I was socially rejected by some of my professional peers as being a “turncoat” and incompetent in both skills. Others saw this dual skills capability as a strength, not a weakness. However, those who had prejudice against my changing department rolls at work put me in that “box”, even after I retired from work.

    This “box” can also happen when one changes Christian faith churches like I did in the 1970’s. I always tell people I believe I should profess to be a “Christian” first, and then follow whatever church I belong to as a second designation in society. My religion is second because Christ was not a Catholic, Baptist, nor whatever other church you go to today. He is the Son of God who came in the flesh to earth to save us, “begotten not made” as we say in the Creed. Even though He was born into the Jewish faith, He was crucified by his own family’s church leaders and the masses (our ancestors) as was prophesied in the Old Testament. Christ was put in the ultimate “box” to pay for our sins. Thank God he loves us enough to show that man-made “boxes” are not for eternity, but only passing unpleasant social experiences if we have faith in Him and trust in His eternal love for us.

    I would image that most of us have met people who seem to be friendly and a “team player” on first meeting them. We later might find out they are only a “ME-first” person and a political schemer to achieve their earthly goals in life. Our worst failures are to be prejudice and thoughtless of people you meet without allowing time for first impressions we perceive to pass about that new person. We all sin, so first perceived impressions may not (and often in my experience do not) reveal who the person really is inside the physical body we see.

    Good article, Gary. I perceive Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to have mostly lived as a Christian, conservative man and I thought his “dream” comments had mostly been achieved after the 1960’s (in spite of two-faced politicians using the racial card to incite divisions), but I guess a lot of folks don’t want to hear that part of MLK’s message. I think it’s terrible that MLK’s racial background is used against his views of equal dignity and opportunity for all people. Selective rights and being unforgiving are not the Christian principles I was taught or read in the Bible. May God continue to bless your relationships with people of good will and those who turn back to God from the darkness of evil.


    • Amen! I may have to start calling you Pastor Al.

      BTW, Ruth and I watched the movie The Butler last night. Based on how Conservative Republicans were portrayed, it seems that, still today, many Whites are only judged by the color of their skin.