At the local fruit & vegetable market last week, a woman reached forward and gently squeezed an avocado to assess its ripeness. Moments earlier I had done the exact same thing and decided it was too soft. I didn’t see the expression on her face, but possibly sensing her disapproval the market stall owner said “what the hell is it with you ****ing people? Last week everyone said they were too hard, so we got softer ones; this week everyone says they’re too soft. You’re never bleedin ‘appy, are you? Customers, honestly…” It was an unexpected barrage, and whilst not overtly aggressive, it appeared full of anger. Nothing further was said, and we all continued our shopping. Silently.
It’s easy to judge people. It’s easy to put people into pigeonholes. I could easily label the market seller as angry, unprofessional and probably in the wrong job. But what’s the point of judging if it’s based on guesswork? The easy route of making assumptions and not asking questions is guesswork. Sometimes you might be lucky and guess correctly. But the rest of the time you’ll be wrong.
A few years ago whilst on my way to work one morning I found myself queuing at a roundabout – perfectly normal considering the time of day. It was slow traffic but was, at least moving, adding a delay of perhaps only 3 or 4 minutes to my journey of an hour. Up ahead of me I watched as a driver suddenly got out of his car, approached the car in front of him on foot, wrenched the driver’s door open and repeatedly punched the seated driver before trotting back to his own car and driving on when the queue ahead permitted. I have no idea what had led to that situation – perhaps there had been some “questionable” driving courtesy moments earlier – but I was shocked to think that it was still only 8 o’clock in the morning. I was left wondering what could possibly have led to this display of anger. How could anyone be so angry at that time of day?
On another occasion I observed a member of my staff arriving in the office. He was alone as he walked in; a big guy – physically and with a larger than life personality. As soon as I saw him, I sensed something was wrong. He didn’t look his usual chirpy self. Looking back on it now, I don’t know why I didn’t simply ask “is everything okay?” but thank goodness I managed to avoid the clichéd “cheer up, it might never happen“. Instead, I said nothing. He walked straight into my office, closed the door behind him, sat down and burst into tears. He sat sobbing uncontrollably for a while during which my mind ran through endless possible scenarios. Eventually he was able to explain what had happened. Days earlier, the elderly grandmother who had raised him from childhood had been suddenly taken seriously ill. He had frantically driven almost 300 miles to be with her in hospital and she had died only minutes after his arrival. He was heartbroken. Seeing this big thirty-something in this state was particularly uncomfortable; it became much easier to handle when the facts were known and the background understood.
For all I know, the fruit & veg seller might have a violent wife; or a massive financial debt; or simply a bad hangover. The shopper might have been a “persistent offender”. The driver at the roundabout might have been taunted by the other driver; or had nasty toothache; or have lost his job the day before; or he might have been returning home from a night shift. I just don’t know.
These aren’t excuses. They might not even be reasons. But they are background information which help form a better understanding of people and events. And if we’re going to judge people (and let’s face it, we probably are), then it’s worth gathering a few facts beforehand. Otherwise we’re just guessing.
“Reading people“, by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius and Mark Mazzarella
Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
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