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You Think You Know Me

You Think You Know Me

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

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I don't know you, but I think I know something about you. And I'm not the only one — the woman who handed you your decaf triple non-fat espresso macchiato might. Same for the crossing guard who waved you and your kid across the intersection en route to school. I'm guilty, also, of making up a story about the stranger across from me on my bus home. And I have an idea about the stories people conjure about me, too.

When I was in college I wore big pants and a wallet chain, and watched on numerous occasions as nervous parents moved their kids out of my path. These days I've got a tattoo that's visible almost all the time, and I've had plenty of curious stares as a result. Sometimes, however, someone takes the time to ask me about it, like on a plane from Phoenix to DC the day after Super Tuesday. A middle-aged woman with short hair, neat makeup, a sweatshirt, and a Bible sat down next to me — ample fodder for the story I'd create. She introduced herself, caught a glimpse of my tattoo, and an indecipherable expression flashed across her face. She immediately asked me about it, and my first assumption, that she'd been turned off by it in some way, was quickly replaced by a more accurate picture. Turns out she was a youth outreach counselor, and from her line of questioning, I think she saw me as an opportunity, an outsider of some sort on whom she could practice her communication skills. I'm actually kind of glad we didn't get personal enough for me to reveal my completely pedestrian (or, at least, not "alterna-") line of work.

So, I'm wondering: What are the stories you make up about strangers, and what do you think they think about you? Photographer Kevin Connolly had some ideas...



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I get stares all the time when I travel around the world from people who wonders about my heritage background. I'm Chinese, but looks Thai/Philippina/Indonesian, even Nepali or Native American. Of course it confuses them even more when I tell them I'm Canadian ;-)

Sent by Margaret Chau | 3:46 PM | 6-3-2008

I'm 5'8" with blonde hair and blue eyes and a friendly personality, and over the years I've met countless people who assumed that I was a devote Morman! After working with them for a period of time, they confessed to me their initial assumption. I found it quite amusing...

Sent by Alison Tompkins | 3:50 PM | 6-3-2008

I recently travelled to Munich and it has been a while since I have had SO many people STARE at me.

I am originally from Kenya... I guess there are few black people in that part of Germany... The stares were not what I would term "open hostility" but mainly stares that I considered "questioning why I was there... why I was in that particular hotel, restaurant, museum.."

Sent by Beatrice | 3:57 PM | 6-3-2008

Your comments about how others will make assumptions about you and your condition brought to mind similar situations I've encountered. While I have nowhere near the situation and experiences you have, it remains one of my pet peeves for others to jump to conclusions. Once my boss made a less than kind wise crack about me being too vain to wear my reading glasses. The truth is that it is painful to wear glasses for more than a few minutes due to having broken my nose many years ago. Likewise, I found that I cannot wear contact lenses due to a scar on one eye. And since I only need the glasses for reading sometimes, I simply do not keep them on all the time. Period. But by that time it just didn't seem worth the effort to explain it to him - I felt if he were that shallow to assume such a label, he wasn't worth my worry.
How do you deal with such things?

Sent by Susi (in Oklahoma) | 4:01 PM | 6-3-2008

Along the lines of making up stories about strangers, this is a sort of game I've encouraged my kids and now my grandkids to engage in. It has served to bring them out of their own little worlds, and to consider the realities and differences of others around them. Of course, we keep it kind and don't use it to make fun of anyone. We also do this about animals, assigning personalites, voices, etc, to the cows in the fields as we pass and the squirrel watching us from the tree.

Sent by Susi (in Oklahoma) | 4:06 PM | 6-3-2008

Thank you for your insight about how we make up stories. I read your comments and the comments of others and have to admit that the one who stares the most at me is ME. Living my life from the inside, I experience myself as intelligent, witty, sensitive and of course, attractive. And then I catch my reflection as I pass a mirror and I stare. How can this long old face, with eyes and mouth too small, and limp hair be me? HOW?

Sent by Mattie | 9:52 PM | 6-3-2008

Kevin you are a beautiful man... on first glance in the photo I thought you were coming out of a hole in the ground. You should get a photo of you in the middle of a black circle - your legs are just dangling below...

Sent by Eric | 2:05 PM | 6-4-2008

I shaved my head a few years ago, and I was surprised at the reaction I got from people. I lived in Chattanooga (small town), and apparently, I became very recognizable. I would have strangers walk up to me all the time and start talking about my lack of hair, or later, about how I was growing it back out. Other than questions from a few people about whether or not I had cancer, most reactions were positive. I had one woman (I worked at an organic grocery store) come through my line and say that her daughter had recently shaved her head and watching me had helped her come to terms with that. It's just incredibly interesting to me it took a stranger to help her realize that a shaved head does not equal drug addiction, or promiscuity, or radicalism, or anything other than a lack of hair. (My mother, of course, was horrified when I shaved mine.) :)

Sent by Melanie Taylor | 2:37 PM | 6-4-2008

The stare may be universal, whether good or bad or even indifferent. It is what happens after the stare - a smile, kind word, awkward glance away........perhaps some will not get used to seeing a person unlike themself until they realise we are all one step away from being like another now or in the future. good luck to you - M.H.

Sent by M. Holzwarth | 8:08 PM | 8-4-2008