If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I work in retail. What you don’t know is my actual function in that environment. Basically, I fix things. When a computer goes down, I get a phone call. When sale prices aren’t ringing at the register, I have to correct them. The great part about this is that I don’t deal with customers as often as, say, the cashiers. The negative? When I do have to interact, it’s because something isn’t working, the customer is already pissed off, and it is (somehow) assumed that the fault is mine.
Believe it or not, I’m fairly good at handling this. The other day, I was called to a register that was malfunctioning. The customer was not happy. In fact, she demonstrated her discontent by hurling a twenty pound bag of dog food at me. Seriously. This happened. After I picked my jaw up from the floor and arranged my features in a tight, apologetic smile (retail training begins and ends with a phony smile) I fixed the quirk in the machine and wished her a good day.
Did I mean it? Uh, no. My secret, genuine wish was only that she’d fulfill her promise of never coming back. So far, so good.
When I got home from work, I proceeded to recount the events of the day. I have a tendency to exaggerate, for entertainment value. Though little was necessary, I did put in the work to describe the woman, the lane, the dimensions of the bag. I gave the facts in true, chronological order. Then I got on my high horse as I punctuated each error this woman made in manners, civility, and being a human being, finishing with, “You know, I hate to judge people, but–”
I stopped there because my audience had begun to laugh at me. Um. That wasn’t the punch line. A dear friend (between guffaws) said, “Dude, you judge everybody.”
WTH? Are you kidding me? I don’t judge people. I’m the most open-minded, tolerant, people-loving person in the world.
My audience laughed harder. I could feel my own sense of humor dwindling. “Seriously,” I said. “I don’t judge anyone! I don’t care what color someone is, what sexual orientation they prefer, what religion they practice. I don’t care if you’re old, young, fat, thin, poor or rich.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” she said.
This dear, wise, (quite possibly overly opinionated) woman then pointed out the many, many ways that I do, in fact, judge others. Recounting stories I’ve given over the years, she threw out a number of assumptions I’ve made about total strangers. She made me stop and think.
Clearly, I’ve been talking too much. Unfortunately, that isn’t the real problem. She was right. I do judge people. Constantly.
I’ll never say it to your face (I have issues with confrontation) but behind my tight little smile is a whole host of judgments. Did you call your wife an idiot in front of me? Are you rude to the cashier trying to help you? Is your eight-year old wearing more makeup than I own? Did you park your car like an asshole?
Oh yeah, I’m judging you.
To say I was uncomfortable with this revelation is putting it mildly. I’m a nice person. Judging people is not nice. It’s mean. For someone who goes out of their way to be amiable and generally kind, I was downright disturbed.
“Well,” my friend offered. “Everybody does it.”
Again, she was right. Most of us believe we’re “nice.” Most of us are appalled at the idea of deliberately wounding another. Of course, most of us believe our silent judgments go no further than us. How are we hurting anyone by thinking they’re a jerk? We aren’t… except, I think, maybe we are.
The assumptions we make, while perhaps not outwardly visible, directly affect our ability to empathize. Whether we develop a grudge against a woman for throwing a bag of dog food, or we make a snap judgment against a skinhead based on nothing more than his appearance, we are losing sympathy for our fellow man. It can certainly be argued that some people deserve it. Some people do. But I’m uncomfortable with this method of distributing good will.
On a good day, I can come across as the very epitome of kindness. On a bad day, I’m sure others have found me abrasive and unlikeable. I, and those close to me, understand why. They see the bigger picture, the issues that affect my attitude. I once snapped at my sister because I’d just had a huge fight with our mother. She got it. She didn’t hold it against me. She made a somewhat inappropriate joke, made me laugh, then listened to my grievances until I no longer wanted to throw things.
We don’t know the stories of strangers. We don’t know why they’re rude, selfish, or inappropriate. Maybe the woman fighting over a ten cent coupon just lost her job. Perhaps the three year old you see with a binky in his mouth is coping with his parents’ divorce. Maybe the guy who parked his car diagonally across four parking spaces…okay, I can’t explain that one, but I think you get the point.
It’s hard not to judge, but now that I’m aware of my tendencies, I’m trying to change. The next time I decide someone is a jerk, I’m going to take a moment and try to understand. I’m going to remember that I’m not always as nice as I should be, but that doesn’t mean I’m undeserving of sympathy. Few of us really are.