idol season nine | week 32, #2 | 1437 words
The bystander effect
I was visually handicapped for the first eight years of my life, and no one knew it.
My mother suspected, but couldn't be sure. I was the toddler who always got hit in the face with a ball instead of catching it, and who always hid when new people or unexpected visitors came to the house. I was certain all that talk of there being a mountain at the end of the pasture was a prank, and my parents thought I simply misunderstood what mountains were, or that I was looking at the wrong thing.
When we were in the car, my mother sometimes asked if I could see a particular thing, and I eventually always did. But there was always a lag between the question and the answer.
The reason for all this dancing around is analogous to trying to prove a negative: if you have poor vision from a very early age, how can you possibly know that your version of the world isn't the same as what other people see? It's like asking someone born with chronic pain whether something hurts. They have no reference point for what "not hurting" feels like.
As a child, I just assumed there was some sort of trick I hadn't figured out. We would go to the eye doctor, and he'd ask me to read the letters on the wall. From what I could see, there were no letters anywhere in the entire room! I always hung back until my younger sister went first, and I would memorize the sequence of letters as she said them and then repeat them back when it was my turn. If I picked the wrong line to recite, the doctor just thought it was an honest mistake.
That was how I made it to the third grade with an arsenal of coping mechanisms that kept my problem from being discovered. They finally caught me when the school eye exams started using the multi-directional "E" charts, where you were supposed to show the orientation of a randomly-selected "E." I flunked that test so badly that I got even the giant "E" wrong!
I was a genuinely shy kid by temperament, but my vision was the biggest factor in why I waited on the sidelines instead of jumping into things. Trying to decode what is happening based on sound and large motions can be really tricky, especially if it's something new to you. I couldn't really see people's facial expressions unless they were really close, so I relied on tone, wording, and general body language to decide whether people seemed safe or friendly. As a young child, I couldn't sleep during naptime, so when the boredom became intolerable, I'd climb out of my crib and spend up to an hour sneaking around and listening to the grownups to see if they seemed to be in a good-enough mood that I could ask whether I could get up yet.
I used a similar method to figure out new people, and unexpected visitors? If it's someone your parents already know, the identification rituals tend to get skipped. I'd have to listen and see if I recognized the voice, unless someone eventually mentioned the person's name. Why didn't I just ask? Are you kidding? When everyone else knows who the person is, you are obviously an idiot if you don't.
Not wanting to appear stupid made this much harder than it had to be, but I think that's pretty common.
Even now, I can identify people at a distance by how they move. As a kid, whenever we had recess or large gatherings, that was the only way I could recognize someone who was more than twenty feet away. I built up habits I wasn't even aware of, and they stuck around even when I no longer needed them. Once, I found myself irritated because a coworker had changed his clothes at lunchtime. That was such unreasonable thinking that I tracked it down to the realization that I memorize what people wear each day—because again, that's another way to identify them from a distance. I have not needed to do that since I got glasses at age eight, but my subconscious still collects that information anyway.
I can also find my way through any part of the house in the dark, though I will not be happy if something got moved since the last time I looked at it.
Some experiences were not so harmless. During a second-grade trip to a city park, I was daydreaming on the swing set and didn't hear the teacher announcing it was time to leave. She must have decided I'd catch up eventually, and would pay more attention next time. By the time I realized everyone had left, they were completely out of sight. I walked back along the park-to-school route as best I remembered it, running up to every large group of people in the hope I'd found my class. By the time I did, we were two blocks from the school, and I was frantic. I never felt the same way about that teacher afterward.
Transportation arrangements to an after-school Girl Scout meeting became unclear when we hit a surprise early-release day. After waiting around at school for half an hour, I decided no one was coming and started walking to the leader's house. I'd only ever gone there by car before. When you can't see streets or landmarks very well, it makes for a very long, vague journey. I actually made it to the right house, but I felt stranded and forgotten all over again.
Meeting up with people outside of their office or home was incredibly stressful for me up until about ten years ago. I always worried that I was somehow at the wrong place, or they were, that they hadn't seen me or vice versa, or that they were expecting me to signal them but never relayed exactly how.
Sometimes, I feel as if that's still a metaphor for my life.
Some of the early information I missed out on never got absorbed. Not just my depth perception, which is poor, but also some of the subtleties of interpersonal communication. When I was able to see people's faces as well as hear them, the visual part still didn't fully mesh. Sometimes the visual input is more of a distraction, given that I'm much better at vocal cues. That also means that when people stop talking—when they become irritated or uncomfortable, and they shut down—I may not even realize what's going on. Vocal input is direct communication, but the lack of it can be indirect communication of something else… and I may be utterly oblivious. This has been a problem for me off and on as an engineer, where my coworkers tend to be more reserved and I may be clueless as to what they're really feeling.
When I finally got glasses, the world had so much more detail than I'd realized. The mystery of why telephone poles were so tall was finally solved (I only ever saw the cables going into the ground, and couldn't believe such large "location markers" were needed!), and who knew the cursive alphabet was on display above the blackboard? I'd been flunking penmanship all through third grade, and been really peeved that no one had told me I needed to memorize the alphabet the one time I'd seen it in a book at the end of the previous year.
But the extra information, while often beautiful and amazing, can also overwhelm the things I'm supposed to notice and don't. After years of developing more confidence and initiative, I'm now expressing things more often and more bluntly than the people around me would like. I had occasional blurting-out blunders growing up, but mostly I just watched and listened and rarely spoke. It's funny, but if I still had those earlier social handicaps, I'd fit into my workplace much better than who I've finally become.
So, my mission for this year is to become more easygoing, from the perspective of my coworkers. That means fading back a little and staying more on the sidelines rather than expressing so many opinions and ideas. The task of becoming less of "myself" at the office is a hard one, and it seems I'm struggling with what other people have already intuitively learned.
I worry that all this was lost in those missed formative years, and I'll be forever stuck trying to solve the mysteries of human interaction with a faulty decoder ring.
What if that's really all I've ever been doing anyway?
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