Perception is reality

Perception is reality. This phrase has been bouncing in my head all week, ever since I read it in my company’s social media guidelines.

*Yes, my company has social media guidelines, as I found out after mentioning this blog to the HR. And while we are on this topic, the postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent Lionbridge’s positions, strategies or opinions. Which you have probably figured out already.

Perceptions and mob justice

A memory about perceptions keeps coming up: last summer in Dar es Salaam, Paul and I were very close to falling victims to mob justice.

Here is what really happened. Salum, a taxi driver, was taking us to the airport. Suddenly, we saw a man flying across the road and landing right in front of our car. Salum quickly veered to the left to avoid him. The car in front of us, that had hit the man, drove on.

A few seconds later, the traffic slowed down and stopped, the car in front of us had to stop, and our car had to stop, too. Instantaneously, a mob of thirty people gathered on the road, shouting, pointing towards the spot of the accident and the two cars, and shaking their fists.

We knew the most important Tanzanian rule of the road: if you hit someone, don’t stop. Drive on and come back with the police. But there was no way to drive on – we were stuck in traffic.

It was the other car that caused the accident. We knew it, they knew it, and the mob kind of knew it. Suddenly, a Swahili woman in a red burqa emerged next to our car, pointing and shouting. More people moved close to our car, pointing at us and shouting. Salum rolled down the window and started yelling back.

Part of the mob seemed to believe that our driver was at fault. The new reality was being created, with the possibility of us having to bear the consequences. We were mzungus (= Europeans, so meaning walking wallets, from the Tanzanian perspective), and it made our position even more precarious.

We got lucky: the victim was hurt (probably a broken leg) but still conscious. The mob picked him up and carried him towards the two cars. It was the moment of truth: he pointed to the other car, the mob moved away, and our car was forgotten. A young man motioned “go” to Salum, and we sped away.

What could have other outcomes be like? I don’t know, and it’s not the point of the story. For me, it was about how quickly perceptions can cross into reality, and how palpably real they can become.

Online vs. offline perceptions

I work remotely, so I am in the perceptions business – big time. For my team members, I am a Russian-accented voice in a teleconference, a bunch of emails, an internal wiki profile, and whatever comes up if they google me.

I am traveling to Boulder on Monday, to spend a week onsite, meet my manager (a remote employee herself), and work side-by-side with my Boulder-based coworkers.

With me being there physically, are our pre-existing perceptions of each other going to be majorly disrupted? Are people going to be very different from my mental images of them? Am I going to be perceived completely differently in real life than as a virtual teammate? I am a bit worried about these things.

At the same time, I am very curious about how this trip unfolds and what I can learn from this de-virtualization. And meeting so many people in real life will be good for my social tonus. And getting to know my team with help me understand them better, and work productively in the future.

Are you in the perceptions business?

These two situations – being in the middle of a mob in Tanzania, and flying to Boulder to meet my team in real life for the first time – are two very different examples of how perceptions and reality can interact in everyday life.

I am sure there is more stuff in between. Have you been there? Is it something that you are noticing around you? How do you interact with it?