I am very fortunate to live near where I grew up, so I am able to periodically see friends from grammar school and high school. We get together in the town we all lived in when we were kids, and have been very supportive of one another – especially when we lost one of our group to a sudden heart attack a couple of years ago.
One evening when we were having drinks one of the women said to me, “Why were you such a snob when we were in school? You would never talk to anyone, you were so stuck-up!” I was so stunned at her comment. It actually took me some time to reconcile what she had said with my own, actual experience that she was reacting to. When I was in school, particularly in high school, I was terribly shy. So much so that I would actually hide in the stairwells when certain people would come down the hall. I had a core group of friends that I could be boisterous with, but when in school I would not open my mouth. This is hard for people who know me now to believe – as now I am a person who enjoys speaking in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. But in those days I could not have been more quiet and afraid to speak.
The exchange with this woman made me think again about the filters we use when we view the behavior of others. She saw me as making a choice not to interact with her. She viewed it as being rude, or snobby or stuck-up – like I thought myself to be better than her and that she was not worth my time. The opposite was really the truth: I was afraid to speak to her – and to most people. I dreaded going into new classes, or to lunch if I didn’t have someone there who I knew for support. My entire high school experience was one of trying to hide!
We go through our days so unaware of the labels we apply to other people’s behavior and the filters through which we view what they do. When someone you know walks by you and doesn’t speak, do you think, “What’s with her – why isn’t she talking to me?” or do you think, “She must not have seen me. She must be so involved in her thoughts.” When someone cuts you off in traffic do you think, “What a rude and insensitive jerk!” or do you think, “That person must be trying to get somewhere fast!” We see a certain behavior and instead of assuming the best, or just seeing it as data, we use our imagination to create a negative idea about that person or that event.
Does this mean that there are no rude people? That the person who cut you off wasn’t a “rude jerk”? Not necessarily – it just means that often times we simply don’t know what’s going on with another person, but we don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. I often wonder if we were to assume positive intent (a process taught by NLP – Neuro Linguistic Programming) in most cases, would it actually change our experience? I think it would – we would have different expectations, different understandings and therefore different experiences.
This week, try to catch yourself when you label someone else’s behavior. Be objective about the label you apply. Is there another way to understand what that person is doing and why? Change your filter, change your experience and see if it changes what you think about another person.