5 insights from a “Blindfold Party”

Fashion, makeup, skin color, height, jewelry, gait, musculature, hairstyle, eyebrow shape, glasses, acne, shoes, breast size, eye color.

After taking it all in, we think we have a clear picture. Judgments uttered within brief minutes of interaction: “Oh, she’s a cool artsy type, probably a drug user.” “Ah, he’s one of those annoying cocky tech bros, don’t let him hit on you.” “Her hair is so frizzy, she clearly doesn’t know how to take care of herself.” Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re wrong.

But what if we took those visual indicators away? What if, when you met someone, you had no idea what they looked like?

Last week, my roommate and I had a “Blindfold Party.” The rules?

  1. You must wear a blindfold at all times.
  2. Be cautious of people and objects around you.

It was an amusing and intriguing social experiment. Here are a few things I learned from the experience.

1. I totally judge on visuals.

I usually pride myself as someone who minimizes judgment on appearance, but with a blindfold I realized how I make “micro-judgments” at social gatherings, in two big ways.

Who to talk to. I recognized that I judge appearances to decide who I want to talk to at a party: if they’re talking to one of my friends, if they’re alone, or even if they look like someone who might be in a similar line of work. When blindfolded, I couldn’t discriminate between who I spoke to, so I’d talk to whoever was audible and nearby.

What to talk about. When I speak to someone, I normally rely on visuals to at least give me a few conversation topics — in this case, I couldn’t discern what “type” of person they might be and alter my conversation or tone correspondingly. I definitely do use physical cues to give me a hint of what a person might be like or would be interested in. In this way, my conversation topics were more consistent from person to person.

2. You can conclude a lot from someone’s voice.

After stripping away visual senses, I still perceived people’s characteristics based on their voices. I could determine gender, race, and even general height (depending on where the sound was coming from).

Beyond that, things got pretty misleading. For example, I’m 5’11 and have a pretty deep voice, yet blindfolded people who spoke to me thought I was a huge, 6’5 foot tall, burly dude. I’m actually 5’11 and pretty skinny. It was pretty hilarious to guess people’s physical attributes on their voice and see how wrong we were. The folks in the room with accents definitely got this a lot more.

3. Conversations are hard when you can’t see.

It was a zoo! Everyone was talking and I couldn’t focus on a particular conversation, because I had no idea who was even talking to me! Totally underestimated the importance of physical proximity and eye contact in helping me focus on a specific person. Joining and leaving conversations was awkward — I couldn’t tell when someone left a discussion, or if they were just being quiet. And I didn’t really know how to politely enter a conversation without interrupting in the middle.

One-on-one conversations were also fascinating. Without facial expressions while I spoke, I couldn’t gauge if my listeners were understanding me. It felt a lot like a phone call where I had to check in more, and say “mhmm”, “gotcha”, “sure” to let the speaker know I was listening.

4. Touch is awesome, but we’re hesitant to use it.

Amidst the cacophony, our saving grace was actually the sensation of touch. Several times when talking in a group, we wanted to clarify who was with us, and what was background noise — to do this, we hugged. The social stigma against touching/hugging was thrown out the window; we needed to connect physically in order to connect emotionally. It was quite nice and novel to do so, and something I’d like consider doing more to supplement my normal conversations.

5. It was liberating.

I felt so free when no one could see me. I could leave a conversation immediately and it wasn’t that weird, I could laugh less at jokes that weren’t as funny, or I could sit in the corner alone and eavesdrop. Heck, I could even have picked my nose while someone was talking to me. No one was judging me based on my clothing or appearance, and on some level, it made me feel pretty relaxed. I want to try to be a little less artificial and worried about my physical appearance in social conversations.

Overall, this was a pretty wacky social experiment, but the crowd seemed to enjoy it — especially the end, when all twenty or so of us lifted our blindfolds and got to “re-meet” the people we’d been talking to the whole time. Many of us were shocked and surprised, since we’d developed very different visual images of the people we chatted with. The experiment reminded me how much I categorize based on looks and depend on my sense of sight. Thanks to Nihar Madhavan for co-hosting with me!

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