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.
Beyond Dispute Associates
© 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.
What an insightful observation and suggestion for fixing the problem! On a related note, I also have noticed that many of us tend to attribute positive characteristics (benefit of the doubt, I suppose) to those we don’t know. This has arisen in making hiring decisions where an internal candidate, whose strengths and weaknesses are known first-hand, is viewed less favorably than someone we’ve interviewed for a total of 3 hours and had 3-20 minute reference check calls. Not sure what to do about that one! Ideas – perhaps a future column?
Carolyn Parr says
Kelly, Thanks for the great suggestion! Carolyn
Suzanne Ghais says
Love it–great advice. Re: the comment above, I have observed the same: outsiders seem more “sexy”‘ than insiders. Beware discriminating (unintentionally!) against the insider.
Adrian Small says
Great article and fabulous exercise that I will practice. My suggestion to Kelly is give your internal candidate the same 3 hours you give the external one and compare. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Dixcy Bosley says
Oh my, I thought you were talking about my sister and me!
Very helpful insight. Fun imagining you and Gretchen at Guapos! I want to join you.
Camille Harris says
I like the idea of making up 3 stories – or at least 2!! Our local November elections in Richmond, VA, arequite controversial this year – almost as much so as the national election! I have heard so many stories about the mayoral and school board candidates! One thing I’ve noticed is that many people are in denial about “troubling” aspects of the candidate they have decided to support. It’s kind’a like they know only 1 story about the candidate they support, it’s a good-enough story, and they don’t want to hear other stories! Those folks who are fully open to listening to and reflecting upon more than one story about a candidate are most likely going to make better decisions on election day!