Two months ago I wrote about the
fundamental double standard, wherein
we misjudge people because we can’t see deeply enough into their lives and
minds. Given that we can’t do this, you’d think we would intuitively understand
that other people can’t read us very well, either. Yet, in all our flawed glory,
we engage in another doozy of misapprehension.
Psychologists call it the “illusion of transparency,” and for once, the name is
apt. The idea is that we go through our lives believing that our feelings, our
motivations, and our desires are as transparently obvious to others as they are
When we’re frustrated, stressed out, or elated, we tend to think everyone else
will just know this and will react to us as we would wish, without us having to
tell them. Even when doing something as prosaic as moving a pot from one burner
to another, we may feel our motivations for doing so are perfectly obvious, when
in reality our spouse may be wondering what the heck we’re doing that for.
Here are three broad ways writers can exploit this phenomenon.
Misunderstanding, resentment, and conflict
The illusion of transparency creates a mismatch between how we see ourselves and
how other people see us. We see our inner self, with all our strife and
troubles, while other people only see the calm facade we project on the
surface. You can easily build this into a rising-tension sequence culminating
Imagine two characters, one of whom is doing something that is hard for her –
something that represents real effort and struggle; something for which she
wants a bit of recognition.
Maybe it’s an employee and her boss. Let’s say the employee volunteers to do
some onerous pile of grunt work nobody else wants to touch. Let’s say she does
it because she’s angling for a promotion. She stays late every night and comes
in on weekends until it’s finished. But she doesn’t make a big deal about it
because that would make her look needy, so she only mentions in her weekly
meeting with her boss. “Oh, and I took care of that inventory thing. It’s done
Consider how she now feels: frazzled, fatigued, and looking for recognition for
her yeoman work. Is she likely to get it? No, because her boss can’t see that;
no matter how she feels, she will still put her best professional face forward,
so as far as he can tell she’s fine and it’s on to the next order of business.
All he’s going to say is, “Great! Thanks. Now, what about the Zipco proposal?”
There’s the misunderstanding, and from it, the seeds of resentment and conflict.
Because you know what happens now: as soon as the next grunt-work job comes
along, who’s going to get asked to do it? Yup, the gal who did it without
complaint last time. So rather than feeling praised and rewarded, she feels
punished for her earlier efforts. Instant resentment.
This mismatch between how she perceives her efforts and the recognition she has
been denied, versus how her boss sees her, will go on until a conflict arises.
Maybe she boils over in a fabulous, juicy rant. “I work myself to death for you
and what do I get? Nothing! Not a word of thanks or a little bit of a bonus, or