The recent school holiday break saw my husband and I embark on a road trip from Adelaide to Melbourne, stopping off at some iconic sites along the coastline of the Southern Ocean as well as staying at various little seaside towns along the way. In order to make the most of our journey we visited the tourist information centre at some of the towns to get the local intel on the best things to see and do.
During one of these visits the lady who was attending the counter at the information centre was obviously very knowledgeable and keen for visitors to have an experience that would best meet their needs and interests. As we waited our turn I could hear her speaking with the couple ahead of us in the queue. She outlined a number of exciting activities that she thought would be fun for them to enjoy with their children, describing them as adventurous and “guaranteed to wear the kids out”. As my husband and I approached, keen to glean her wisdom and plan our day, I could see her quite obviously look both of us up and down as if she was making some sort of internal assessment. She then began by suggesting my husband and I partake in a leisurely stroll along the harbour boardwalk and after that perhaps a guided tour of some of the historic buildings in town. I enquired about some of the activities that I had heard her recommend to the couple before us and her reaction showed her surprise at my interest by saying; “oh I didn’t pick you as a particularly intrepid couple”. I was momentarily offended by her remark and quickly challenged her perception by declaring that we would indeed be doing the more adventurous activities and we were most certainly up to these particular challenges. I then began to wonder what it was about us that made her think we were only up to a sedentary stroll? Was it the lack of Kathmandu clothing or hiking boots? Surely it couldn’t have been my age? Did she think I looked unfit or lazy?
After this encounter it made me realise how easy it is to make snap judgements about people, often based on very superficial information. I then thought about the many times when I had been guilty of doing the same thing myself – making assumptions about people based on the way they look, speak or dress which were in all likelihood both unfair and inaccurate.
While initial impressions may be important when you are interviewing for a job or going on a first date, in real life building genuine, authentic relationships and friendships requires more than a prefatory glance. Asking questions and actually listening to what others have to say definitely takes extra time but when we do this not only are we often surprised by what we hear, but it can also help us to develop empathy, understanding and compassion. Consider how many opportunities are missed, potential friendships forsaken and misunderstandings persist when we fail to take the time to ask and then listen.
Fortunately for us as Christians, we have a great role model for this in Jesus. He was famous for befriending those who society considered to be outcasts and unworthy of friendship based on the way they looked. We read in each of the gospels how Jesus regularly took the time to look beyond physical appearances and engage in meaningful dialogue with others, even when it came at a personal cost. As members of a diverse and dynamic community the challenge for us is to take those extra few minutes to look beyond the surface in our interactions and not allow our preliminary assessment of one another to become our final judgement.