Monday, October 26, 2009

How Old Do You Look?

I used to be a pretty good judge of age. People who had gray hair and/or wrinkles were old. People who looked like my parents were middle aged. And the rest of us were young. But some time in between college and thirty the lines started to blur a bit. Now I can't tell who's old and who's middle aged. Am I middle aged? What about my friends? I also can't tell the difference between a high school junior and a college graduate. They all look too young. Not that any of this matters, mind you, but I got to thinking about it after a little awkward moment at a party the other night.

I was standing in line, holding a paper plate, minding my own business. Michael had gone through the line earlier, so I was hemmed in by strangers. We were there to celebrate the fortieth birthday of a guy who attends our church. His family had invited a large number of people who are a part of his life. As it happened, I was in line for dinner among folks who don't attend our church.

Just before the line turned the corner of the dining room table, a woman ahead of me turned back and said, "Excuse me. Did you go XYZ High School?" Rather surprised, I told her I had. Then I began searching her face for some kind of recognition. Anything. But I came up with nothing. I was sure I didn't know her. She smiled and expectantly said, "I graduated in 86."

And there it was. Out there for everyone in the dining room to hear. Several people were listening, certain they were about to hear "It's A Small World" playing in the background, no doubt. I knew immediately that she'd misjudged my age. There was no easy way out of this. As gently as possible, I answered "I graduated in 95".

She began to make excuses about how I must look like someone else she knew. The man standing between us, perhaps her husband, began to laugh and tease her. A lady behind me started in on her too. And I was stuck. Among strangers. Looking ten years older apparently, and feeling sorry for the woman who was clearly embarrassed. I tried making small talk about the school, but she was done. She just wanted out of the room.

I got to thinking later how often I try to make these age judgments. When I'm trying to describe someone to Michael. When I'm trying to make notes on a client at work. When I'm sizing up other moms. When I'm surveying a room for potential friends. Pretty much any time I'm out in public really.

And I wonder now how often I'm wrong. Not just a little wrong, but way off. I don't think this is a skill I'll be improving either. Kings Dominion won't be offering me a midway job guessing ages any time soon. The lines are way too blurry anymore. I think I'll stick to 'really old' and 'still in school'. Everyone else is in the middle!


Shannon said...

I'm terrible at guaging ages too. I have the opposite problem as you...I get mistaken for being 10 years younger than I am. People seriously laugh at me when I tell them I'm 30. Um, ok. Strangers always ask why I have 2 kids since they assume I'm so young. Two rude ladies actually were talking about how tragic "kids having kids" is when they were standing behind me in line! (I set them straight.) Another guy asked if I went to the high school he teaches at and was dumbfounded that I graduated from high school in 97. I'm not really sure which is worse - people assuming you're much younger or much older. :/

MomBrose said...

Here's one for you: I was telling someone the other day that I have a hard time getting respect when I teach at community colleges because I look too young to be a professor. The lady quickly said, "I don't think you look like a young college student at all. It's probably just because you're short. I bet if you had short hair and glasses you might get more respect." I literally had no words to say back!
I don't think you look like you graduated in 86. But maybe it's the short hair and glasses :D So I'm told... :D

Anonymous said...

Here, we always ask. It's normal get-to-know you chit chat. So what's your name, where you from, what year were you born... But in the US people are so crazy private about ages esp women. What's that all about?
Most people here guess my age wrong too. I think a lot of times we base age on how someone dresses and the ages of their kids. Since I don't have kids and dress casual, I must be a college student. Sterotyping doesn't always work.
karen in VN