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On looking younger than you are

By Saturday, January 19, 2013

A few days ago I got my hair cut by someone new, and while making small talk she asked if I'd moved to Germany with my parents. When I told her I'd moved with my husband, she told me she didn't think I was old enough to be married. Only later did I realize that asking if I moved with my parents implied she didn't think I was here on my own working, or studying, or even taking a gap year. She thought I was so young I'd never left my parents, that I was a school student still. In the US, this would be under 19.

I'm 26.

This happens to me a lot, where people assume I'm far younger than I am. Whenever I complain about it, people who haven't experienced this tell me I'll grateful for it when I'm older and not to let it bother me. They're probably right about the enjoying it when I'm older part, but right now it's really frustrating. It makes me feel like someone is making judgement calls about me, and depending on the situation my experience and abilities.

People's lives generally follow a pattern that corresponds to age, at least loosely. In the US, you usually graduate from high school at 18, get your bachelors degree at 22. After that comes your first job or grad school, both achievements. To some extent at least, age correlates to these milestones. Even though not everyone follows this path, you will find far more 24 year old's who have graduated from University than 17 year old's.

Similarly, one typically grows as a person as one ages. Not everyone who is 25 is mature and responsible, but they almost always are more responsible than they were at 20. You learn a lot of things through the school of hard knocks, by doing things on your own instead of just watching, by making mistakes and fixing them.

When you make a remark to someone about how you thought they were younger, you're essentially saying (in my case) "I didn't think you could have graduated Uni or even high school. I didn't think you ever lived on your own or weren't dependent on your parents. You couldn't possibly have a career yet, or be supporting two people financially. I thought you were as mature and responsible as a teenager." 

Not cool. Now imagine what people think when they meet you in a work or professional environment - how many people have underestimated me and my abilities based on the age they assumed I was?

This has been happening most of my life. When I was 17, I once had a 12 year old try to chat me up in the public library. I had no idea what he was doing, and then when I let him know I would be graduating high school the next year, he just walked away.

But probably the worst instance was a few days after I got married. My husband and I were going through airport security and I got chosen for the random screening. The TSA agent asked me how old I was and when I said 25 she actually called some of the other agents over to guess my age. They guessed 15, 14 and 13. 13!

Photo of me less than a week before being told I looked like I was 13.  I'm 25 here.

She told me she was about to ask me where my guardian was! She thought I wasn't old enough to fly on my own.

But what if she'd asked me who I was flying with first? I would have answered "my husband". And she would have thought that at 13, I was married and my husband was taking me abroad? Not good. Not good at all. That could have created so many problems, not the least making us miss our flight if we had to be interviewed.

So the next time the oldest person in your group of friends is the only one to get carded when ordering drinks (me, again) don't tell her to enjoy it - she might be getting passed over for a promotion at work because she looks too inexperienced to handle the responsibility, or is assumed to be a student when she's the teacher.

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