Thursday, February 25, 2021

Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover. How I Became Aware of My Unconscious Stereotype

I previously published a version of this post on 10/23/14. Since newer readers may not have seen it, I've revised it a bit and I'm sharing it again. 

Never judge a book by its cover is a worn-out cliché, but it is true advice that I should have remembered during a brief encounter in the past.

Three old and worn hardback books propped up between some pumpkins
The covers on these books have seen better days, but the contents are still classic. 

I visited an auto parts store to buy jumper cables

Almost a dozen years ago, I stopped at an auto parts store one afternoon to look for the jumper cables. I had promised these would be our donation for the “car-care items basket" my son’s class was assembling, to be auctioned at the School PTA fundraiser later in the week.

I wandered up and down the somewhat scruffy and cluttered aisles, feeling very out of my element. I was surrounded by people who all seemed comfortable locating what they needed. I perused every aisle, but couldn’t find the jumper cables.

The store shelves were disorganized and I was overwhelmed

My frustration mounted and I was nearly ready to concede defeat and leave empty-handed. Suddenly, a man in dusty jeans and a rumpled store vest approached and said, “I’ll be with you in just a moment, Ma’am.” (He must have read my mind . . .)

Seconds after he spoke to me, my eyes spied an inexpensive “Emergency Car Kit.” The label bragged that it included all sorts of emergency items, including the jumper cables I had hoped to buy. Lying partially covered by another item on a bottom shelf, I had nearly missed seeing it. 

I was taken by surprise by the excellent customer service

When the salesperson returned to my side, I asked him if the contents of the kit were accurately depicted on the packaging, and told him why I needed it. He confirmed the contents. 

To my surprise though, he added,


“But you probably want another one. This box is torn and stained, and the packaging is cut through. Let me look in the back, as I think we have a newer-looking one there.”

My first impressions were so wrong

I was very taken aback, and more than a little ashamed of myself. Somehow, I had negatively stereotyped this person, based on my observation of the disorganization of the shelves and grimy floor, and even (unforgivably) his gender and unprofessional attire. 

A jumble of red and black jumper cables with brass colored clamps.
I recognized the absurdity of my unconscious stereotype while shopping for jumper cables.

I wrongly assumed that the untidy store was staffed by people who were indifferent about both the products and the needs of the consumers. It had seemed that details such as the packaging and aesthetic appearance of an item would have been unnoticeable and unimportant to them.

Not only did this salesperson find an impeccable emergency car kit for me, but he also voluntarily provided some store coupons and a free t-shirt as a donation from the store to include in the basket as well.

This man was quite different from the stereotype I had unconciously and inaccuratedly applied to him.

The take-away from this story

As I recall, the “car-care” basket was a popular item at the auction. I'm hopeful my family’s contribution provided a feeling of security and perhaps some safety for the driver who acquired it. 

I’m sure the car-care basket was a worthwhile item on which to bid. The lesson I learned from it, however, was priceless. I recognized the absurdity of my unconscious stereotyping while shopping for the jumper cable. 

It’s not always easy, but I hope I learned to be more careful about making impulsive judgments before I really know someone.

When was the last time you made an assumption about a person, but once you got to know them better, you realized it was not true?


Please keep social distancing, wear a mask, wash your hands, get vaccinated, and stay healthy!

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  1. Great post, Susan! I love your photograph of the books. It's easy to jump to conclusions based on appearance. BTW, we have to make those types of baskets for the PTO silent auction each year and the car care idea is a good one!

    1. I'm glad the idea is a helpful one! The best thing about a car car basket is that there are a wide price range of items kids can bring in to put it together. Thanks for the compliment on the photo! I was really pleased to have the pumpkins to use as bookends!

  2. Very good point - I guess internally i'll have some sort of thought but externally I truly try to be courteous with everyone I meet . I am reminded of this about the President of the company I work in - without getting into specifics if one would see him you would never guess he runs a very successful business- then there is a quote about angels in the book of Hebrews something like this be kind to strangers you don't know if you are meeting an angel - sadly in today's world we approach with caution at times - have a great day

    1. Good thoughts Marisa. I hope you have a wonderful day week as well!

  3. Great post Susan. My son just experienced this earlier this week. A man came in to have his car serviced - a very old, beat up truck. C found out later that he is the founder of Zumiez, a very successful clothing company, and is a multi-millionaire. He keeps the truck because he likes it - C was amazed that he didn't have the latest, most expensive version. It was a great lesson for him.

  4. Oh, those books. Have loved them all.

    I can't say I am perfect in non-judgment area, but have learned some lessons over the years.

  5. It is a conundrum isn't it? There are some things I DO judge by their cover. Book are one of them. A book with a cover glorifying violence (scantily covered women/whips) is not for me. I feel no shame about it.
    And my first impressions of people (including the negative ones) have often proved correct. There have for example been people who have made me feel uneasy/uncomfortable for reasons I could not put my finger on.
    These days where people are concerned I make my judgement (quietly) and watch and wait for a while.

    1. You are right -- a book cover is one of the things that often makes me want (or not want) to read a book. As for first impressions, I think we need to be careful they are not based on negative stereotypes, but sometimes they can help us judge a person's character.

  6. Loved this post. I lived in Arkansas in the early 1980's when Wal Mart was just starting to take off and it was well known that Sam Walton, the founder, did not live extravagantly and, in fact, drove an old pickup truck (it's in a company museum now). I lived in that part of Arkansas. Just imagine if someone who didn't know him had met him out on the street. I didn't know him personally, but I know he was a legend.

    1. Thanks, Alana. I'm glad you like it. That is an interesting story about Sam Walton. And I love that his old pickup truck is now in a museum!

  7. I love this post! I have been in so many auto stores in my life. My husband, John, was always sending me there on a “mission”. Some of the fellows who worked in them had been students of his when he taught auto mechanics at the then Vo-Tech before he went into teaching carpentry. They were always delighted to find out who my husband was. I got exceptional service and a lot of joking around about my husband whom they fondly called “JC”. Those guys were a little “rough around the edges” but genuine. I’ll take them over a snooty “suit” any day!

  8. "Diamonds in the rough," right? The relationships you and "JC" have formed over the years reflects the wonderful people that you are. Glad you liked this.

  9. Ohmyword, I completely understand this! How often have I done the same thing!
    A few years ago, my middle son, who dresses usually in black, has giant rings in his ears and a shaved head, was walking down the street in the city where he lives. A woman and child approached from the opposite direction. When they spotted him, the woman took the child's hand and walked quickly across the street. My son was so hurt. I explained to him that his appearance was all she had to go on. She couldn't possibly know the kind, sweet, caring person inside. Who works with special needs children and adults. But it was brought home to me how often we all judge that book!

    1. I am so sorry your son had that experience, based solely on his appearance. Our world would be so boring if we all looked the same. Yet, how quick we are to judge each other - and how very wrong we often are.


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