Before Covid I often found myself in Las Vegas to speak. Sometimes I got to wander off the beaten path of the strip and on one particular trip I was on Fremont Street in old Las Vegas.
I saw a sign for a craft brewery inside one of the older casinos and decided to check it out.
The bar was nearly empty except for one very big human being with a shaved head and a long beard. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt and had a biker wallet in his back pocket connected to his belt by a chain.
I flashed back to my childhood. My mother would have whispered, “Avoid eye contact. We don’t want any trouble.”
I took a stool a safe distance down the bar from the other patron. I wanted to order a tasting flight and was especially keen on a seasonal beer that was supposedly available. The bartender informed me they had just run out and that I was out of luck,
The big guy overheard our conversation and spoke up in a surprisingly high pitched and gentle voice. “I have a taster of that beer if you’d like to try it” and he pushed his glass toward me.
My brain was doing a quick recalibration. My perception of this gentleman didn’t match the reality. I also didn’t want to offend him just in case there was a hard core thug buried beneath a soft spoken voice.
Thank you, I said, and tried the beer.
That broke the ice and we began a far ranging conversation initially motivated by our mutual love of beer. We shared beer trivia and information about great beers and new breweries. He had the same love of beer I have.
I found out the man’s name was Tiny. He was visiting from Oklahoma with his mother. “Mom loves to come here and I love to bring her out when I can to make her happy.” Tiny struck me as a caring son and truly nice human being.
I learned nothing of his politics, or who he voted for or his religious beliefs or lack thereof. They didn’t matter, and if they’d have come up, I can’t imagine he’d have presented them in an insensitive way nor that I would be in any way offended if we saw things differently.
After imbibing a responsible amount of beer I needed to leave, but Tiny stayed as that’s where his mother had decided to meet him when she came back from her walk. I left having spent an enjoyable time with a new friend having a fascinating conversation.
I remember that time fondly. I was reminded of so many things, some obvious and some more subtle.
Our need for safety and security makes us assess people and situations quickly. And that often if not always serves us well. But when we make snap judgements, we close ourselves off to more information. Being cautious is prudent but being closed off isn’t. It can cause us to incorrectly misread people.
Rapport is based on the idea that we are more likely to like people like us, and appearance is one of the first obvious signs that determines it. No matter how many times we are reminded, why is it so easy to dismiss others who look so different? Tiny was a gem of a human in an unusual package based on my experience. But my experience and your experience is incomplete. There are wonderful people hidden in odd or off-putting appearances. And there are some terrible human beings packaged attractively. And although we like to think appearances indicate beliefs and attitudes, they often don’t.
One of my favorite baristas where I get my coffee looks as little like me as someone can. He has multi-colored hair among several distinguishing traits. And he is one of those gems of a human being who brightens my day every time I see him.
I encountered Tiny long before the civil unrest and divisiveness we experiencing now in the United States. Normal life is far more challenging. Tribalism has increased, factions don’t just disagree but often openly hate, and we are wary if not afraid of those who look different from us. I am greatly saddened by this.
The superficial–appearance being primary–are far less predictive than behavior. It doesn’t matter what you look like, breaking the law, looting and rioting expose your true character for all to see. You can do it but you can neither excuse it nor justify it.
Snap judgement and conclusions rarely serve us well. When I think about Tiny, and my encounter with him, it reminds me that is doesn’t have to be this way. I can’t change you, but I can change me. And you can choose to be a little more open to the idea that if great people often look really different they also sometimes think really differently than we do. We can disagree with the idea without hating the thinker. Behavior is a far better indicator of character and integrity than bumper stickers or social media memes.
I’ve never crossed paths with Tiny in the intervening years, but I think of him periodically and appreciate him for the tiny reminders he gave me.
Mark Sanborn is an award winning speaker and Leadership Expert in Residence at High Point University, the Premier Life Skills University. For more information about his work, visit www.marksanborn.com. He also teaches professional speakers and leaders how to increase their messaging and public speaking effectiveness. Learn more here.