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The You Everyone Knows

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There are a multitude of home décor magazines available—Architectural Digest, Better Homes and Gardens, Dwell, Martha Stewart, O at Home, Sunset, Metropolitan Home, Wallpaper—the list goes on and on. All of these magazines give us wonderful ideas, inspiration, and how-to advice on making our homes beautiful. There are huge amounts of information available on interior design—and unlimited design possibilities for anyone creating a home.

In my opinion, whether or not you read magazines looking for ideas, your home will simply become a manifestation of you. Even if you were to copy one of those magazine designs down to its finest detail, the home you’d end up with would still look like you somehow. If I choose a design, I can’t help choosing one that I find appealing—and a design will appeal to me because it somehow expresses who I am.

I believe that whether you consciously try for this effect (or not), your home is such a powerful expression of you that a total stranger with a keen sense of observation could come into your home for no more than twenty minutes and quite possibly (actually, very probably) describe your personality better than someone who has known you for years! Forget six months of dating; forget five rounds of job interviews. Step into someone’s home for twenty minutes and all shall be revealed.    

Sound impossible? Well, I thought so, too. (Actually, I secretly thought I was the only one who possessed such gifts of observation. Apparently I’m not that gifted.)

According to the psychologist Samuel Gosling, in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, here’s how it worked:

Mr. Gosling gave college students a questionnaire to complete after they had inspected the dorm rooms of eighty perfect strangers. Close friends of these same eighty people also completed the very same questionnaire. This questionnaire, called the “Big Five Inventory,” evaluates individuals in five different categories (all of these evaluations are valuable in professional interviews, dating, potential friends, you name it.) The categories evaluated are: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to new experiences.

Out of these five categories, there were only two personality traits that strangers didn’t measure as accurately as close friends. These two traits were extraversion and agreeableness. According to Gosling, this makes sense, because speaking face to face with someone, or having a history with him/her, will reveal these particular traits more accurately. But! The perfect strangers were much more accurate at judging a subject’s conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to new experiences—all after walking through that person’s personal space for only twenty minutes.

How long would you have to date someone before you had any insight into one of these personality traits, let alone all three? How many unbearable rounds of job interviews would it take before a prospective employer would be able to perceive this type of information?

Gosling goes on to state that a person’s bedroom gives away information about three very specific personality traits.

  1. There are identity claims, which are intentional expressions of the manner in which we want the world to see us. A friend of mine displays a photo of herself—with Hillary Clinton—both of them attending a function at their alma mater, Wellesley College. Wow! Not only is that girl well-educated, but her family must be wealthy. In addition, she has political savvy, is probably a feminist, travels in affluent circles, and for god’s sake, she knows Hillary Clinton!
  2. There is what Gosling calls “behavioral residue.” This concept is something that makes me cringe, as I think of my bedroom, with its residue: still-unpacked suitcase, two pairs of dirty underwear, iPod, stray CD, three half-read books, shirt drying on the radiator (it’s been dry for three days now), spare skewer belonging to one of my rear bike wheels, and a pair of pants lying across a chair that still hasn’t made it to the dry cleaners. I can’t stand it that all this stuff is lying around—but it’s there, nonetheless. Behavioral residue. In my opinion, this type of evidence is the most telling of personality. Although I did say that I can’t stand this clutter. I’m sure a perfect stranger couldn’t extract that nuance from my mess.
  3. The final bedroom clue Gosling calls thoughts and feelings regulators. These are adjustments we make to our most personal space in order to regulate how we feel when we’re in these spaces. This makes me think about the many scented candles in my room, and the artwork from Brazil that reminds me of a place I love. 

One of the reasons we can be so good at evaluating a stranger based only on his/her space, is because of the information we don’t receive if we’re standing alone in someone’s house. Since we’re not speaking with that person, we’re not receiving the visible and audible information that we get when we’re face-to-face with someone. It’s exactly this ordinarily available information that can jam our intuitive circuitry, causing us to misinterpret, misjudge, and misunderstand.

In a way, our personal space is the purest form of our personality. And the interpretation of this space doesn’t require a rare gift. We all do it—whether we know it or not.

I wonder if I’ll think about that the next time I redecorate. I imagine I will. But it probably won’t make such a difference. You could still walk into my house anytime with your clipboard for a Big Five Inventory, and know more about me in twenty minutes than some of my closest friends.


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