Like Paris, Washington, DC is a city of outdoor cafes. One of my favorite things to do while sipping a margarita at Guapo’s is to make up stories about the people passing by. It’s fun to do with a friend.
Recently, for instance, a clean-shaven, neatly dressed brown-skinned man with straight hair walked by. He wore a blue dress shirt, open at the neck, with his sleeves rolled up. He looked 30-ish, serious, focused as he entered Starbucks next door.
I guessed, “An American University (nearby) grad student from India, studying international relations.”
My friend said, “No, he’s a part-time law student. He’s headed for class and needs coffee to wake up after work.” Was he Muslim? Married? Innocent fun.
The problem comes when we judge people we think we know by what we make up.
Gretchen, my acupuncturist friend, says everything we think we know about a person is what we make up. While I wouldn’t go that far, I get her drift. I tend to judge people – especially those I don’t know well – by what I see and hear. Clothes, cleanliness, age, how they carry themselves. Do they smile? Make eye contact? Speak in a shrill or calm voice? Do they look like me and “my people”?
While those are all important clues to a person’s “real” self, that’s all they are: clues. So Gretchen says if you’re going to make up a story, make up three. It gives you a better chance of being right.
This is especially helpful with a colleague or neighbor – or even a relative – who sets your teeth on edge.
Imagine, for instance, that your divorced younger sister has moved in with your 70-year-old mother. Your private time with Mom has disappeared, and you resent it. Worse, Mom is taking care of Sis’ daughter after school and seems to be doing most of the cooking.
You suspect Sis is not paying rent and is otherwise taking advantage of Mom. The more you think about it, the madder you get. Is she going through Mom’s money? Turning Mom against you?
OK. That’s one story. But before you get invested in it, make up another story:
Sis is paying rent and buying some of the groceries. She’s Mom’s transportation to church and doctors, the beauty shop and other places. She also pays Mom to babysit. Mom wants her there and enjoys her company. Maybe it’s Mom who’s taking advantage of Sis.
Or there could be a third story. One that invites you to look at your own attitudes toward Mom and Sis and your niece.
- How often did you visit Mom or call or offer to help before Sis moved in?
- Did you judge your sister when she got her divorce?
- Does your resentment stem from ancient sibling rivalry toward the baby who pushed you out of your favored place?
- Would your niece think of you as a loving aunt?
I’ve found this exercise especially helpful when it comes to judging other people’s motives or labelling their character. What looks like unfriendliness may be shyness; arrogance may be masking insecurity or loneliness. Sometimes, reaching out can surprise you.
I want to remember to make up three stories – and choose the kindest. It can change everything.
© Carolyn Parr and Beyond Dispute Associates, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carolyn Parr and Beyond Dispute Associates with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.