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The Entire World Is A Stage - Sometimes It Helps To Have A Baseline

I wake up from a very un-restful nights sleep and get dressed. My team at work is waiting for me to help with some training materials and I need some energy to get the morning going. I could take a cold shower or practice limericks to wake my brain up, but I would prefer my own dosage of caffeine to those other options.

I walk into my local coffee shop to order three shots of espresso. But before I do that, I encounter one of the most genial baristas I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Amber (her name is changed for this article) is, I assume, a twenty something year old wife with a fondness for people and a joy for work. I chat with her about what's new in her life. There's nothing new. We don't have much time to connect because it's the rush hour and I don't want to hold up the line, so I step aside after I've ordered and wait to pick up my drink.

A couple of days later I'm back in the shop and Amber is there. She tells me about her battle with cancer and how she felt it was necessary to quit her other job teaching kids because of what she would be going through. This surprises me. "How long have you been dealing with this?" She is currently getting treatment. I marvel at this because I would have never figured this out without her disclosing this information to me. Despite her struggles with something that can obviously be life altering, she doesn't show it. Even if she has been in pain or struggling with the emotional toil that cancer can bring, she doesn't allow it to show.

The baseline or default behavior I experience with this woman is a high bar to reach. I have never seen her unpleasant or upset and every time I talk to her, she greets me with a smile. My thoughts of Amber made me think of the words of William Shakespeare, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages." What can the behaviors of others teach us?"


In the stories of Sherlock Holmes, he often registers certain things about a person or their behavior and this helps him to make a deduction. Overt gestures and mannerisms are big contributors in moving the stories along. Here is an example of this from A Study In Scarlet.

“I wonder what that fellow is looking for?” I asked, pointing to a stalwart, plainly-dressed individual who was walking slowly down the other side of the street, looking anxiously at the numbers. He had a large blue envelope in his hand, and was evidently the bearer of a message.
“You mean the retired sergeant of Marines,” said Sherlock Holmes.
“Brag and bounce!” thought I to myself. “He knows that I cannot verify his guess.”
The thought had hardly passed through my mind when the man whom we were watching caught sight of the number on our door, and ran rapidly across the roadway. We heard a loud knock, a deep voice below, and heavy steps ascending the stair.
“For Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” he said, stepping into the room and handing my friend the letter.
Here was an opportunity of taking the conceit out of him. He little thought of this when he made that random shot. “May I ask, my lad,” I said, in the blandest voice, “what your trade may be?”
“Commissionaire, sir,” he said, gruffly. “Uniform away for repairs.”
“And you were?” I asked, with a slightly malicious glance at my companion.
“A sergeant, sir, Royal Marine Light Infantry, sir. No answer? Right, sir.”
He clicked his heels together, raised his hand in a salute, and was gone.

If you read further you will find that the Holmes saw a number of signs that indicated that this man was indeed a sergeant of the Marines. He explains,

"Even across the street I could see a great blue anchor tattooed on the back of the fellow’s hand. That smacked of the sea. He had a military carriage, however, and regulation side whiskers. There we have the marine. He was a man with some amount of self-importance and a certain air of command. You must have observed the way in which he held his head and swung his cane. A steady, respectable, middle-aged man, too, on the face of him—all facts which led me to believe that he had been a sergeant.”

Holmes displays a pretty remarkable affinity for linking tangible evidence with behavior. This isn't as easy a task as we would like. In day to day life, people are often changing masks, like actors on a stage. They do this to lubricate social interactions, to evade connections, to be left alone, etc... Just as my barista displays a brave front in the face of cancer, many of us have learned to mask how we feel at any given moment. But let's not let that fact stop us from analyzing Holmes' process here. These are my takeaways from this part of the story:

  • Holmes finds something that stands out to focus on. The mans tatoo stands out from across the street, so Holmes focuses on that. Holmes focuses on another tangible piece of evidence to support his future deduction. He sees regulation side whiskers and a miliary carriage.

  • Holmes links the confidence and general swagger of the man and places him at the military rank of a sergeant.

His process seems pretty straightforward. Observe and link actions to items and behaviors to stature. Obviously this requires attention to detail and deliberate thinking, but it seems doable. From the costume to the behaviors, Holmes looks at the world as though it were a stage and each actor announces themselves in obvious ways.

For the rest of us, the world is pretty complex and the actors are rarely ever so overt that they plainly show who they are and what they are feeling. I submit my wonderful barista as evidence. This is where a baseline of behaviour can help us out in making a deduction. Now, in the case of the sergeant of marines, there are some things that stand out as a baseline of reference for an entire occupation. Let's take a couple of real life examples.

The Marine Corps is a good example of profession that has very strict guidelines for dress and grooming. To illustrate the point, in the manual Marine Corps Uniform Regulations , it outlines specific behaviors that can be used while wearing the Marine Corp uniform. One of the things that surprised me was this line of the document, "The use of chewing gum, chewing tobacco, cigarettes or the consumption of food or beverage while walking in uniform or while in formation, are examples of activities that detract from an appropriate military presence."

This is an example of how comprehension about regulations could come in handy. In our case, if we saw a Marine walking down the street and they were eating a hot dog, we might conclude one of two things. The first is that this is not a Marine. Marines take a lot of pride in what being a Marine means. What self respecting Marine would detract from the respect due to the uniform? The second would be that the Marine was perhaps careless, or forgetful or maybe even disillusioned with the idea of being a Marine. Once again, the question can be asked, what self respecting Marine would detract from the respect due to the uniform?

Before we learned this information, if we saw a Marine in uniform walking down the street eating some food or drinking some beverage, we might have registered this a behavior as strange but nothing more. Perhaps we would say something like, "hmm did you see that Marine? They were awfully casual." But now that we have a specific piece of information about the decorum and rules that govern the Marines, we can make more detailed assessments of their behaviors while in uniform.

If Holmes had enough experience observing sergeant marines in his time, the regulation side whiskers would help him come to the conclusion he arrived at in the Study In Scarlet. I'm not suggesting that we spend our days reading manuals or observing every person we see to find specific pieces of information that we can use to "read people". Rather, I would recommend that, depending on what field of interest you are focusing on in your personal life, you build up your base of information and build it up a lot. Make it broader and more inclusive. Don't close yourself off to storing useful pieces of information that could be useful to you.

For example, if you are a programmer and work on front end development, learn about back end or design, or perhaps networking. If you are a baseball player, maybe spend some time learning about physics if you aren't currently aware of how the ball interacts with the mechanics of the arm or bat. It's not just Holmes observation that helps him make deductions, it's his knowledge of specific things. We can all observe the world around us, but if we are unaware of the specifics that it holds, than we won't be able to make those stage stopping deductions.

The ideologies and cultures that surround us often forge us to the notions of stability and normalcy. Like the players on a stage, the routines and behaviors we exhibit are often simply part of a scene. Knowing the players and the sets helps if we want to make deductions like Sherlock, but it also helps to have a baseline.

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