Prisoner or Warder?

In the classic Prisoner episode "Checkmate," Number Six devises an ingenious plan for escape from the Village. He assembles a band of rebels, determining that they must puzzle out which of their fellow residents are guards and turncoats, and which are real prisoners.

"We must figure out who are the prisoners, and who the warders." he instructs his band of escapees.

They begin staging casual interactions with all their fellow villagers, gauging those villagers' reactions and making appropriate judgments. The house painter who leers down at them and barks at them to stop wasting his time? He's a warder. The demure, submissive gardener who apologizes and sulks away? Most likely, a prisoner.

Everything goes well for the Prisoner and his gang, at least for a while. Before long, they hijack a boat out on the sea. Unfortunately, the Prisoner's greatest error has been to underestimate the forceful, egotistical way he's commanded his own team. By now, they think he's a warder, and they revolt against him, ruining his plans. You see, in the village, nothing is at is seems, and the assumptions we make about others can often lead us down the wrong path.

In real life, discovering 'who somebody really is' is fraught with uncertainty. Unwitting or not, people generate expectations in each other from the first moment they meet. Many people have a more comfortable time perceiving personality traits such as shyness, hostility or posturing as fixed variables, Unless you're especially attuned to visual/verbal cues, it's hard to know what to expect from a relationship.

One Halloween in Maine, I attended a party where I met a large group of people for the first time. One of them looked to be around seventy. He wore a ratted sweater, and old man socks, and shoes, and his face was lined with wrinkles and his head covered in sun spots. I then realized he was wearing a costume - a damned good one - and that I had absolutely no idea what he looked like underneath all the makeup. I saw him as that old man. Every time thereafter that I saw him, though he was a young guy with long brown hair, I couldn't get past that first impression. I even begin to look on him as an 'old soul,' though I had no evidence to support that.

I use that example as an illustration of how first impressions indelibly shape our perceptions of people, despite evidence to the contrary, and whether we know it or not. Our minds perform gymnastics to circumvent uncertainty, and consequently, we often get crossed wires in what we feel people are about. We rush to slap labels on people and figure them out right away, and move on to the next summary judgment. We do it to avoid inhabiting that uncomfortable place where uncertainty and vulnerability reigns in our relationships. Consequently, we often get shit wrong. I've gotten it wrong many, many times, and paid the price.

In the hurry to peg others with appropriate labels, and establish power relationships with them, we often rush to put up the appropriate walls and banners, and then it turns out we were wrong. Rather than delaying judgement, or taking things at face value, we immediately project a number of things onto that person, and before we know it, we've poisoned the well before even taking a single sip. It's almost impossible to avoid doing this at work, because there, deadlines and pressures make it impossible to breeze through interpersonal dynamics. At work, you are constantly seeking the nearest shortcut or the best solution, and so with our colleagues, we don't often take the time to get to know them in ways that might cement a constructive relationship. 

A while back, I began working with a colleague who reminded me of an older 'me.' I was so fixated on what I perceived as his sunny, positive attitude, because I needed so desperately to relate to someone at work. I needed the dynamic at work to shift, and my need for new blood to come in was so great that I all but ignored the warning signs. Before long - and after I had already told him that I appreciated his work ethic and attitude - his real inner demons came out. He is actually a very miserable person - angry, resentful, passive aggressive. He's not an older version of me at all. He is (I realized in horror) exactly who I never want to become, physically and mentally. He's a know it all, and worst of all, he seems to hate women, using the term 'bitch' and 'stupid bitch' to describe women in the office he doesn't like. Boy, was I wrong, and not only that, I've begun telling him not to use those words around me, because they are offensive.

People like that belittle others out of feelings of powerlessness in social relationships. They feel powerless to change or shift their dynamics with others. We'd be wrong to peg bullies as dominant personalities. They're prisoners posing as warders.

People who feel they are better than you don't don't typically demonstrate it with put-downs, but rather, body language. Fixed expressions (especially grins), overly raised eyebrows, casually turning their backs and getting distracted while you are speaking to them, interrupting or speaking over you - these are all bad signs.

Unfortunately, shy people are also often accused of this dismissive behavior because shy people lack the ability to appropriately respond to others. It doesn't mean they're purposefully dismissive. It means they're awkward, or shy, or possess some sort of minor autism or crippling social handicap (in other words, they might be software engineers). Consequently, shy people, prisoners held back by their unwitting social gracelessness, get branded as warders all the same. This was especially true for me in the goth scene, where it was nigh impossible to tell the difference between a snob and a cripplingly shy person (and believe me, there were plenty of both).

The chemistry of physical intercourse and the politics of wordplay are immensely complex, and fascinating, and there are so many grey areas that there's no way we could ever break the world down into simply 'prisoners' and 'warders.' Were it so easy. Relationships must evolve in order to take shape, and not a moment before, and a lot of human beings can't deal with that.


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