I was soaked by the time I crossed the parking lot and opened the door of the jewelry store. Just a few days before our anniversary, or maybe it was Jill’s birthday, I was a man on a mission.
I hate shopping for jewelry. It’s too one-sided. Every product is unique and it’s worth whatever the seller says it’s worth. You can’t go to the next dealer and price the same item, as you could for cars, microwaves, copiers, books…pretty much everything.
So I asked a lot of questions about the differences in size and color and shape and how-the-heck-do-you-know which is which. The jeweler responded to each question with “it depends” or “each pearl is different.”
Well, yeah. But he found a way to look at those differences and assign specific prices, so I wanted to understand how or why he did it. I’d know what to buy and what to pay if I understood why he made various choices about the same thing.
The conversation was fruitless and, five minutes later, I thanked him and left the store. As I opened the door, I heard him tell his young son, “He just came in to get out of the rain.”
I don’t know how he is on a good day, when he thinks he’s dealing with a real customer, but clearly he didn’t think I fit the profile. I was the only customer in the store, but that didn’t matter. He had already decided I wasn’t going to buy from him, so he used all his power to turn his assumptions into reality.
And I used my power to buy pearls from somebody else.
The first jeweler is still in business. Most likely, he’s still turning people away on the basis of his perfect instincts and still thinking he’s very, very smart. He’s not nearly as successful as he could be, of course, but his lack of awareness shields him from the self-doubt that plagues more introspective souls.
I was reminded of the jeweler while reading a book about the ways doctors make bad decisions by relying on misleading instincts. Like our friend with the unsold pearls, doctors often jump to errant conclusions and then adjust their filters to support their mistakes.
Just like you and me.
My dad said that any person you meet will make a dozen conclusions about you before you begin to speak. Perhaps you resemble his ex-wife or your handshake reminds him of his favorite uncle. Maybe your suit is the same color that his own boss was wearing when he got hired (or fired) or your shoes are too scuffed for his taste.
Before the conversation gets started, you’re not you anymore. You’re a combination of memories, all mashed into a box that allows no escape. Usually, any misconceptions are minor. Sometimes, though, we all swing to faulty assumptions and, worse, we work very hard to prove ourselves correct.
Even if we expect a negative outcome, we still invest all our energy to confirm our expectations. Whether it’s a meeting with clients or a convo with the in-laws, we follow the same script. If we think the no-good jerks are going to cheat us, or we anticipate stubborn resistance, we follow the dictum of Captain Picard to make it so.
How many customers or friends or opportunities do we let slip, simply because we’re so damn smart?