On the plane to Hawaii, I sat next to a man wearing a knit skullcap, sweatsuit, sneakers, and dark glasses. As I do whenever someone sits next to me, I said hello. But then I immediately thought, “He must be one of those hip-hoppers.” And because of my innate belief about hip-hoppers, I formed a negative opinion. I assumed he wasn’t smart, was into drugs, and was denigrating women. So, while courteous, I had nothing more to say.
There was silence, except when I expressed the obligatory “Excuse me” when I passed him to go to the lavatory. Then, ninety minutes into the flight, the attendant offered dessert and an after-dinner drink. He surveyed his choices: hot fudge sundae, cheesecake, or amaretto. Laughingly he said, “I’ll pass, thanks; I’m on my way to work.” I thought, “On his way to work from San Francisco to Hawaii, and no cheesecake or sundae? What could he be doing?” Curious about what he meant, I asked, “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a mariner,” he said. “What’s that?” I asked.
For the next thirty minutes, I was fascinated. His stories of living on the water for four months at a time were geographical history lessons. As I listened, in the back of my mind I was embarrassed at how I had prejudged him. Then I thought to myself, “How often do I do that? How often do I make assumptions about people based on how they look, how they dress, the car they drive, where they live, who they love, where they went to school, the color of their skin, their familial associations, or their religious choices?”
I realized I do it way too often as I thought about it. Without even being conscious of my behavior, much of my day is spent judging others. Why? Because there is a payoff, and in my mind, it’s worth it. When judging other people, feeds into an existing belief I have about myself: that I’m better than you or worse than you. And either way, I come up the loser. Also, judging others, I don’t have to look at myself. The focus is on what they’re doing, not what I’m doing. Finally, it supports my thinking that I can’t possibly have anything in common with people I perceive as different because I’m not like them. What a great way to keep my world small. How often do you prejudge others?
With all the supposed benefits of judgment, there’s also a price to pay if you’re like me. Your thinking essentially makes you a bigot. Your pool of available friendships is limited. Your client base and your team of business associates are narrowed. Your knowledge is inadequate because your source of information is restricted to only those who think like you. Finally, the judgment makes you angry, and anger is unattractive because it eats away at your spirit.