Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Of Tattoos and Misimpressions


Sometimes we are just wrong about people.

My daughter and I recently visited a sandwich shop, a national chain where submarine sandwiches—or what New Englanders call grinders—are constructed to your specifications by minimum-wage workers. The early part of the process, where you choose the sandwich and the kind of roll, was handled by a young white person whose behavior was typical of many people today in low-paying service jobs. By this I mean, he appeared bored. His thoughts were somewhere off in the distance, far away from his job and his customers. This chain of sandwich shops offers a choice of five kinds of rolls, and after telling me that my first two choices were not available, the worker offered no apology and seemed unaware my sense of disappointment. Of course, working as a “sandwich artist” at a place like this is a job, not a career. Almost everyone who takes a position like this considers it temporary, a mere paycheck to help them get by until something better comes along. But not everyone has this kind of distracted, uncommitted attitude.

When we moved down the line to the worker whose job it was to finish the sandwich assembly, we met a very different kind of person. This young man had tattoos up and down both arms, as well as the kind of neck tattoos that are designed to extend upward above the collar line. He was a thin but well-muscled man who looked like he might be Puerto Rican.

Based on what was immediately visible about this man, many people might guess he was a gang member and someone who might have spent time in jail. Expansive tattoos on a healthy non-white man often provoke fear, and they certainly got my attention. But a closer look soon contradicted any stereotypical first impression. This young man was very quiet, saying nothing more than “What would you like on your sandwich?” But he listened attentively, and the careful movements of his hands were very revealing. Without asking me to repeat my choices, he collected the peppers, tomatoes, and condiments, and quickly but skillfully arranged them across the surface of the meat. After asking me if I wanted anything else, he deftly folded the spongy bread, cut it in half, and wrapped the sandwich neatly in paper.

The young man’s construction of my sandwich was quick and efficient, and although I would not say the he was particularly warm, he soon won me over. His every movement spoke volumes, and any initial apprehension was replaced by admiration. His was a low-level, poorly paid position, but his mindfulness and attention told me that doing this job well was important to him. In today’s consumer-driven world, having a job like this is shameful. Most people who are stuck in these positions survive in the manner of the tattooed man’s co-worker, by tuning out the work environment and passing the hours on a mental vacation somewhere far away. But this tattooed man was different—so different that he stood in stark contrast to most other minimum wage workers.

In hindsight, I realized the man’s eye-catching external features—his tattoos, his muscles, and his ethnicity—told me nothing about him. At first glance, they were his most notable features, but they reflected nothing of the man within. In contrast his general demeanor and his deliberate actions communicated much more clearly. A picture is said to speak a thousand words, but in judging character, actions speak louder than words or images.

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