“I think fish is nice, but then I think that rain is wet, so who am I to judge?” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
I am a huge fan of the Humans of New York (HONY) website (you can also follow the page on facebook for feel-good hits throughout the day). Brandon, the man behind HONY, takes a photo of a random individual and then he asks a few probing questions to get a snapshot of that person’s story. The images instantly evoke one idea, but the brief snippet of dialogue calls us to question our preconceptions and think a little bit more about the human behind the image.
From the snappily dressed businessman, to the homeless man to a middle-aged couple everyone has their story to tell and it isn’t necessarily reflected by their outward appearances. HONY is a brilliant blog that reaches an audience of millions and is teaching all of us to think before we judge.
I believe it comes naturally to judge people, we can’t help it. But we can try to overcome this tendency by questioning why we do this.
We are human and we respond with a variety of emotions, that we don’t consciously control, towards those around us. These feelings have been shaped by our experiences and the societal norms we unconsciously absorb every day.
So if we feel uncomfortable if someone asks for our number that’s probably because we have had a bad experience in the past. We then project that recognition of a negative encounter onto a new situation. If we feel awkward when a homeless man asks us for money it’s because we feel having a home is important and their approaching us makes us question why some people don’t have this.
If someone is constantly late or fails to show up to a meeting we may decide they are unreliable. We are interpreting their actions by what is important to us. In this case keeping to an agreed appointment is important to us and therefore we negatively judge anyone who does not attribute the same importance to this.
But that same person, that regularly flakes out on you, may also be someone who would drop everything, including bailing on existing commitments, to be there for you if you really needed them. And this may be a trait we also rate highly even though it contradicts the first.
We may think a person is wonderful because we respect X, Y and Z characteristics and therefore admire those in others or we may think someone is terrible because of traits A, B and C that we don’t value. Someone else might think aspects A, B and C are much more admirable than X, Y and Z.
There is no right answer as to what’s better, it’s simply personal preference. Judgement is, therefore, entirely subjective.
It’s easy to judge others. It’s easy to think so-and-so at work is stuck up and looks down on us, or that someone is unnecessarily rude to us, or that another person who makes us tea on a daily person is the best person to ever walk the planet.
But judging others says more about us than them. If we think someone is looking down on us then that reveals our own insecurities by suggesting we think they have something to look down on. If someone is rude to us we should think about why it bothers us or what has happened to them to cause them to be so rude rather than marking them down as a ‘bad’ person. If we think it’s great that someone makes us tea it’s because we really like tea (yes, I am living up to the English stereotype) and value their thoughtfulness in thinking of our needs.
A friend, also comparatively new to Geneva, told me about an incident when she was walking home alone one evening, along an almost deserted street. She was approached by a slightly drunken man who asked for her phone number. She told him she had a boyfriend but he persisted anyway saying he just wanted to talk. When she questioned him on this he admitted with a smile that he didn’t just want to talk. When she still refused to give him her number he asked her if he could just have a hug instead.
She told me that her first thoughts were ‘absolutely not, who was this person, what if he tried to assault her, or steal from her’ but then she opened herself up to the idea that maybe he was just another human being, like her, who was just looking to make a connection. And so she agreed.
She said the hug was so warm and full of kindness that he hugged her as though she were an old friend he had known forever. And then he left. Without having taken any of her belongings, without attacking her and without asking again for her phone number. Months later and she still remembers how wonderful that hug felt.
If we are aware of our tendency to judge then maybe we can try to check that natural feeling and open ourselves up to the idea that every single one of us is a unique and fascinating person, subject to their own experiences and with their own stories to tell that has shaped who they are. This planet is a vibrant tapestry of interesting people from every walk of life and if we could be less judgemental then maybe we could give these people an opportunity to enrich our lives.
(Please note I take no responsibility for anyone who opens up their lives to a complete bunch of nutters unless that person is also a nutter and now has lots of nutty friends in which case I will take full credit.)