Lately I’ve been musing on perceptions…how do others see me, how do I see others, first impressions, what kind of message perfect strangers might take a way from a first meeting…and more.

Perhaps it has to do with my current, hmmm, condition. This past Saturday I taught a class on cultivating and cooking with fresh herbs. Then I worked in my garden. That night I blearily woke to a persistent itch around my eye. [Scratch, scratch] A moment later it itched again and again I scratched for a second before coming to full consciousness and realizing…”Oh no!”

The morning dawn confirmed it, I had managed to get poison ivy, already, this early in the season! [mental wail] For those of you who have not had the bad luck of contracting poison ivy, I envy you. And for those of you wondering what poison ivy on the eye looks like, well, it looks pretty bad. Quite frankly, I look like the victim of domestic violence. Swollen and red, my right eye has been attracting a great deal of attention from strangers in the past three days. When in my company, my husband has received several glares, whispered invectives, and even some loathing glances as well.

Short of wearing a shirt that proclaims, “Seriously, it’s poison ivy!” I wish I could avoid going out in public. The stares bug me, and I’m getting tired of saying over and over, “I’ve got poison ivy on my eye, folks.”

Although I have to say it has earned me the best customer service I have ever seen out of clerks as they kindly point me in the direction of whatever item I am searching for. This is usually dished out in conjunction with a withering stare in my husband’s direction. “Sweetie,” said one clerk, “the socks are right over there.” She patted my arm, “And if you need anything else, anything,” a pause as she glared in my husband’s direction while he wrangled our manic three-year-old, “You just let me know.”

I just smiled brightly, too tired of explaining for the umpteenth time that it isn’t what she thinks and that my poison ivy is bothersome only in that it affects my vision and ability to operate a motor vehicle, not to mention that it itches like a mother.

But as I said before, this has made me think about perceptions, such as the guy who cuts in front of you in traffic, or the customer who snaps at the clerk for some seemingly minor thing, or the difficult co-worker. It has made me wonder if it isn’t quite what I think at the moment and if those labels we use, jerk driver, snooty old lady, or arch-nemesis cubicle dweller are short-sighted or just plain inaccurate.

For a moment, look at these individuals a little longer, and notice the details. Perhaps you will see that the “jerk driver” has a passenger in the front seat who is injured and you realize he is driving her as fast as he can to the local hospital. The “snooty old lady” is harder to read, until she slowly and painfully limps towards the exit and you realize that she has been standing in a long line without any chance to sit and rest despite enormous pain. You are sure that your difficult co-worker is who you think she is, your arch-nemesis, until you learn that her husband has left her and she is struggling to raise the children on her own with insufficient income and mounting bills. Her only chance right now is to hold on to her job, do the best she can, and perhaps, if she is lucky, rise to a better-paying position. No wonder she is hard to get along with, she’s completely stressed out!

These are actually rather simplistic examples. As a coachee of mine pointed out a couple of weeks ago, we all live complicated lives. They aren’t simple and they aren’t straightforward or without fuss. We attempt to put into a box and neatly label a person – smart, crazy, driven, foolish, jerk, difficult, happy, victim of domestic violence, and so many more.

It is in our nature to compartmentalize someone under a ‘heading’ but it is nearly always a mistake when we do. Each person is a complicated set of memories, a product of years of family and environment, and a living package full of contradictions. Keep that in mind as you go forth in the world and try to avoid assumptions and labels.

It is amazing what you will learn about a person when you smile, ask, and wait for an answer.

Yesterday I drove my husband to distraction in the shoe store. He needed comfortable dress shoes and a new pair of tennis shoes. The store was having a sale that would end in fifteen minutes and my internal clock was ticking down the time (less than five minutes to go)…”make up your mind!” was all that I could think of.

He finally had enough of my hovering and sent me away, “Go look at shoes or something and leave me alone, I’ll be fine.” The saleswoman who was helping him looked shocked and irritated (keep in mind my eye).

He smiled at her and said, “My wife’s poison ivy is driving her nuts. It’s all over, even on her eye and she’s rather grouchy. Could you tell the cashier that I plan on buying these shoes and that I’ll be up in just a few more minutes?” In my frustration over the dwindling time I had never thought to ask them if they would extend the sale by a few minutes.

A few minutes later he was at the register with the saleswoman and his purchases. The sale discount was applied to the total price. As we left the store David laughed, “Did you see the saleswoman looking at your eye and neck right when you came back? I told her you had poison ivy and she was checking it out more closely. She was a lot nicer to me after that!”

So that’s my story. Why not learn more about others? Go out into the world, keep your eyes open and remind yourself, “It’s not what you think…life is often far more complicated than it first appears.”