How To Pass Judgment Without Being A Jerk
The importance of backstory
As a young twenty-something, I worked as a front desk clerk at a famous hotel. On my first day, one of my coworkers nearly made me cry after I made a minor mistake. His bark was so intense that drops of saliva flew from his mouth onto my face as he spoke. I hadn’t expected such vitriol from this lowly clerk — a sixty-ish-year-old guy who sat in the back office answering phones.
As the weeks passed, I’d come up with creative excuses to avoid engaging with him. I learned to anticipate his outbursts by how his tone changed when he spoke on the phone. At the right moment, I’d excuse myself to attend to a customer request.
An explanation of his behavior emerged a few weeks later. A coworker let slip that this guy once managed a department but had been demoted several times until they couldn’t demote him any lower.
Perhaps it was age discrimination. Sure, I’d be angry too, but if I had been demoted several times, pushed into a position well below my qualifications, I’d quit rather than suffer the humiliation. With a pension to tide me over, I’d use my precious time for something other than torturing everyone else.
Despite his assholery, some of my veteran coworkers treated him with reverence. This dynamic puzzled me, so I poked around a bit more. The office abuser had a backstory, but it seemed nobody wanted to talk about it.
One of those coworkers always addressed him as Mr. Smith. I asked her why she used that formality with him and nobody else.
“He was once an executive,” she said. “He mentored some of the younger execs. He was even featured in a magazine once. I use the term Mr. to show respect.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“He got cancer. He could no longer do his job, so they demoted him, and then they demoted him again and again.” She shrugged. “He needs the health insurance, I guess,” anticipating my next question.
“Wow. I had no idea.”
“He doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him, so those of us who know him try to keep it a secret.”
From then on, I looked at him differently. Before I knew his story, I thought, “If I were him, I’d have quit. If I were him and still worked here, I’d at least be nice to people.”
Once I knew his backstory, I was able to empathize. I no longer judged him for being an ass or pitied him for suffering the humiliation of accepting demotion after demotion. Who could blame him after experiencing such strife? I went from despising him to admiring him.
From then on, whenever he lashed out at me, I just nodded or thanked him for sharing his knowledge with me. Once I knew the truth, I could no longer judge him according to how I thought he should act or how I believed I would behave if I were him.
Backstory is everything
When we judge people, we tend to put ourselves in the position of the other person and imagine how we’d act in the same situation. But there’s a problem with that approach. When we do this, we don’t consider the other person’s backstory. We don’t ask ourselves what life experiences, injustices, abuses, health issues, family rejections, and financial challenges led up to the moment in time where a person decided on a course of action.
It’s easy to say, “If I were in their position, I wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. I’d do this instead.” But that kind of reasoning doesn’t take into account the accumulated history of experiences that shaped the person you’re now judging.
You won’t always be privy to another person’s pain, abuse, privileges, or challenges, so you’ll need to investigate. These questions can help enlighten you, and allow you to empathize before making ill-informed judgments.
What’s different about their life situation compared to yours?
Begin at the beginning. What was their childhood like? What economic background did they come from? What advantages have they enjoyed? What struggles have they faced? It will take significant effort from you to discover these answers, but that’s the idea. Withhold passing judgment for as long as you lack sufficient information.
Don’t you hate it when someone concludes something disparaging about you without knowing your history? It infuriates you, and you think, “Hey, you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know my story.” Give others the same consideration.
How would those experiences have affected your worldview?
Once you’ve gathered enough information, replace your backstory with the other person’s. Look at the situation through their eyes. Given their set of life experiences, what would you believe? What would you value? Who would you trust or distrust?
Would I believe X if I had experienced Y?
If I had lived their life experience, would I accept what I’m now preaching?
The mere act of walking through this exercise will often yield a new conclusion. Okay, I can see how someone might hold a different set of beliefs than me. If I were them, I might believe X instead of Y.
Finally, filter the situation through your revised perspective. Ask yourself how this new worldview changes your evaluation of the other person. That’s how you empathize.
Putting it all together
By forcing yourself into this exhaustive evaluation, you will arrive at a more nuanced judgment.
If you’re like me, most of the time, you’ll find you don’t know enough about the other person or group of people to form an opinion. Perhaps too many gaps exist to do a proper analysis, and you’re unable to look at a situation from another person’s perspective. If that’s the case, then avoid passing any judgment. Just let it go.
That’s not a bad thing. There’s far too much sanctimonious preaching in our society.