07/21/2011 08:26 am ET Updated Sep 20, 2011

The Heavy Burden of Low Expectation

Sometimes it's the most mundane of daily experiences that offer us profound lessons about human nature. Like this week, when I finally gave in and made an appointment at the auto body shop.

It had been a few months that I'd been driving around with a big dent in my front bumper, courtesy of an unknown stranger who apparently got a bit overambitious in an undersized parking lot. I filed a claim and had the damage assessed, but I never could quite manage to find time to take the car in to have the work done.

It's not as if the dent affected how my car drove in any way -- it was purely an aesthetic problem. In fact, I gave some thought to not getting it fixed at all. In the end, though, I opted to have the repairs done, but for reasons more psychological than automotive.

You see, I just got tired of driving a car that gave everyone the expectation that I'm a lousy driver. Over and over again, I found myself crossing paths with fellow motorists who thought they knew something about the kind of driver -- and person -- I was based on the enormous dent on the front of my car.

Had it been my rear bumper, I might've gotten a pass. Then people could have given me the benefit of the doubt, assuming that someone else ran into to me. But no, I had the burden of driving around with a dented front bumper. I could tell other drivers saw me and immediately thought, "Hey, this guy already hit one person; clearly he's a hazard." Like so many other instances in day-to-day life, my fellow drivers used the cues they saw around them to jump to conclusions about the type of person I am. And then they steered clear of me.

At least, that's what the paranoid little voice in my head convinced me of. My evidence?

  • Once my car was dented, people stopped letting me merge in traffic. Drivers seemed content to let other cars from my lane get in front of them, in the every-other-car manner that's one of the unwritten rules of driving. When I got to the front of the line, however, the other lane inevitably sped up.
  • I started attracting more honking horns than French players at a South African soccer match. Post-dent, any marginally-aggressive maneuver on my part, no matter how slight, seemed to be elevated from misdemeanor to felony in the court of public driver opinion.
  • The last straw was when running errands in the center of the town the other day. I had to parallel park in a tiny space with little margin for error. The driver of the car parked behind the open spot was still sitting behind her wheel, either waiting for someone else to get back to her car or as part of an undercover Parallel Parking Task Force. When I started to ease back into the space, she rolled her window down, craned her neck out the side and watched me closer than a mall security guard watches a kid with baggy pants at a music store. That is, if kids still paid for music and music stores still existed, but you know what I mean.

I tell you, it was exhausting, this pariah status. Driving around fully aware that everyone else expected the worst of me was wearing me down. I felt like I had to compensate -- to go out of my way to reassure other drivers that I really didn't pose a threat. I started bending over backward to forfeit right-of-way and issuing overly-gracious "thank you" waves when someone finally did let me merge. I refrained from using my horn in situations that were clearly honk-worthy; I just didn't feel like I had the luxury of such an ambiguously aggressive behavior that my dentless colleagues would've exhibited without hesitation.

I finally decided I had enough. I was tired of being met with icy glares through tempered glass. I'd had it up to here with losing the benefit of the doubt on every ambiguous judgment call. I could no longer tolerate being looked at the same way the repentant philanderer gets scrutinized by the skeptical friends of his still-loyal significant other.

So I brought the car in and got the damned dent fixed.

And I also took stock of how privileged I am that the only superficial characteristics of mine that signal to others low expectations and negative stereotypes are of the sort that cost nothing more than temporary angst and a $500 deductible.

Like this post? Then check out Sam's forthcoming book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. You can also follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter.