Café Wrap on Character

Once again our Socrates Café meet up did not disappoint!

The Big Q: Is it human nature to base our opinions on a person’s character based solely on our interactions with that person?

Early on in our conversation, general consensus divined that while our interactions with a person (or our understanding of their reputation) colors our first impression, further interaction hones what we perceive about one’s character.

In the case of a complete stranger, we gather our impression of their character based upon how we see them treat others or our direct interactions with them. But what if the person is having a particularly bad day just before our encounter with them? Could we be wrong about who they are and our assessment of their character?

Suppose you encounter a complete stranger. This stranger has stopped for gas and you meet her inside a convenience store while she’s waiting in line behind you to pay cash. Rudely, she cuts around you without apology. She’s agitated. In that moment, another customer yells at her saying, “Hey, what’s your problem?” and curses her out and shoves her. After choice words are exchanged, she leaves, jumps into her car and tears off narrowly missing someone who is walking from the gas pumps to the store.

“What sort of a person is this?” you ask yourself. What words spring to mind to describe her character?

  • Entitled
  • Rude
  • Uncaring
  • Self-centered

Later that day, you learn that the so-called stranger is actually a friend of a friend of yours! And, you learn what preceded the gas station encounter.

A single mom, she’s been having difficulty at work. Her boss had given the entire staff an ultimatum about arriving to work on time. Anyone not at his or her post by their scheduled start time will be fired. Although she’s never been late to work, today she overslept with good reason. She’d been up several times during the night with a child who has been experiencing night terrors. Exhausted, she didn’t hear her alarm.

To make matters worse, her car was low on gas which she’d originally planned to remedy by leaving home early enough to stop and fill up. Having overslept, if she drove straight to work, she was certain she could still make it there on time, but she couldn’t be one hundred percent sure that she wouldn’t run out of gas on the way. If she stopped for gas, she might or might not make it to work on time. That would depend on several things beyond her control. She decided her sure bet was to stop for gas on the way.

Again you ask, “What sort of person is this?” But knowing the background, new words spring to mind about her character.

  • Determined
  • Smart
  • Responsible
  • Caring

Do you think you could have a different take if you haven’t heard of a person or their reputation? Sometimes, your meeting with a person still doesn’t tell you much about his or her character.

One person cited the example of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain meeting Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s. Chamberlain believed Hitler was a man of his word and found him personable. He’d even hoped he might be remembered as “an apostle of peace,” though history finds Chamberlain’s assessment a serious error.

How you meet a person matters. You might see a TV interview and draw an entirely different conclusion about a person than if you had met them in person. First impressions, we decided, can be skewed. 

Some of us believe that we are pretty good at judging a person’s character based on a first impression, while others are more methodical and take time to gather more information. One said, “My first impression almost always is wrong. It takes me a long time to make up my mind about things.”

Another case we considered is serial killer Ted Bundy who was known as a “charming person.” The way someone interacts with us might not say anything at all about their character. An irritating person, for example, may turn out to be a good person but the things that you find irritating about them may influence your opinion of their character.

One participant asked us all to consider what we mean by the term “character.” He suggested that character may simply be a proxy to how we interact with others. While we may admit to having our own flaws, as humans we generally do a good job of covering them up (even if only to ourselves.)

He also cited examples of both President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were known to have the ability to deal with people, organize them and get things done. Still, both were also known as womanizing philanderers. So do we look at individual instances of behavior or do we judge character on the whole, based on something deeper?

Depth of character may not be just a matter of surface personality traits. The environment can change a person’s character. Does one defer to authority such as those who behaved in monstrous ways during the Stanford Prison Experiment to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, or those whose egregious behavior was revealed in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi perpetrators?

This brought us to pose the question, are you born with character or is it created and changed by your experience?

While we do not claim to have answered the original question, we have gained valuable insight into what we think individually and how our belief about a person’s character squares with what the people around us believe. We’d love to have you join us at the next meet up of the Socrates Café.

Each meetup of the Socrates Café gives participants an opportunity to hear other points of view, and to offer their ideas about the question of the day.