Someone honked at me as I was driving to the store the other morning. He was right to honk. I was at a stop sign in a neighborhood where parked cars make the visibility of the cross street a little sketchy. I didn’t see him as I slowly began to pull out looking to my left to make sure no one was coming. His honking and my braking were simultaneous. I waved a thank you to him. I hope it was interpreted as “Thank you” and not as “Why were you honking at me? I had everything under control.”
I can’t change how anyone else interprets my words or actions. I can only control my own words, actions, and interpretations. And we interpret (and often misinterpret) everything. We believe we are seeing, saying, and thinking truth. However, anything beyond raw facts is an interpretation. The fact is I nearly pulled out in front of someone. What that means or doesn’t mean about me is filtered through my and others interpretations.
Research shows we perceive our own actions quite differently than we might perceive someone else in the same situation doing the exact same thing. We can hear our inner monologue and know our history. We often view our own actions as situational while we view other people’s actions as indicative of some defective character trait. For example, I feel I am a good driver. My last accident was in 1998 and the deer jumping in front of my car was at fault (he survived but may have been limping for a while). Since I have an internal image of myself as a good driver, I believe the situation that morning of obscured vision from parked cars somehow excused my not-very-near-accident. However, the other driver might have thought my actions meant I was clueless or arrogant or ignorant of driving rules.
We only have access to what we see on the surface for other people, so we make judgments. A lot of judgments.
I judge those of you in minivans who drive through the neighborhood at breakneck speeds. I judge you based on your bumper stickers and yard signs. I judge based on whether or not you wear a face mask. I judge the books you take out from the library. I judge the items in your grocery cart. Your yard, your house, your car, your clothes, your expression, your driving.
I judge you.
Is it just me? Am I alone in this?
Psychological principles say we all do this. It’s part of being human. We place people into categories to simplify our lives. Is this person similar to me or not? Are they safe to converse with, to trust? Categorizing people can help us feel safer. We also categorize for comparison. How do I measure up against this person? Can I feel better about myself by making a harsh judgment about you? Categorizing people can bolster our self-esteem, albeit in a manner that does not lead to long-term self-worth. Feeling better like that is a very fleeting glow.
It’s quite scary when I think about how many arbitrary judgments I make about people I don’t know based on a single very, very superficial observation. I know intellectually these judgments are wrong. People are complicated. We each have intricate histories. Diverse experiences. At any one time we may be holding conflicting beliefs in our minds and not even noticing our hypocrisy.
That means we’re human.
In being human we have complex beliefs and a lifetime of twists and turns we never envisioned when we were young. We make mistakes. We learn. We do better. We sometimes fail. Give yourself grace in your humanness.
And maybe give each other grace, too. The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, catch yourself in your judgment. After your immediate reaction to question the driver’s parentage or sanity say, “He’s so … human.”
Then maybe we can learn to say that about other judgments we make about each other.
You’re so … human. And I am, too.
By Joni Miller, Ph.D. ©2021