My girlfriend was talking to me the other day about taking people at face value. This came up because she had had a run-in with someone at work, someone who hadn't taken her at face value, but whom she always had. "I can't help it," she said. "That's just how I am. I take people as they are; I don't read into their motives or intentions".
Well, I completely sympathised. I am exactly that way too. According to the dictionary, to take someone at face value means "to accept them just as they appear". Well, I talk to people, and generally, I don't look for hidden meanings, or cloaked, ulterior motives. I suppose that's why she and I are such good friends; we are just what we are; we say things, we tease, we sometimes make idiotic cracks, but there's no hidden agenda -- there's nothing to read into, be suspicious of, wonder about. It's just what it is. We could be interacting with a woman or a man -- but it's all the same; you could just as soon replace a man we were speaking to, with a lady who sells fish. It simply makes no difference. We discuss, we throw something out, we respond to whatever it is, but it's all within that moment -- we don't have deeper motives; we just move on.
And yet of course we all know people whom we really can't take at face value, whose apparently straightforward demeanour hides a boatload of toxic thought and emotion. But isn't it often the case -- we somehow perceive others based on how we ourselves are. A person who is habitually dishonest, for instance, would tend to think other people regularly lie as well, and therefore can't be trusted. In my girlfriend's case, her straightforward, guileless attitude expects the same in others -- sadly, as my own mother often tells me, this is naivete.
Perhaps the upshot of it is that it's best to always be suspicious. But that just doesn't come naturally to people like us. Perhaps it's inbuilt, genetic; perhaps it's how we were raised; our trusting, loving relationships with those closest to us. My girlfriend is very pretty; she is buxom and open and lots of fun. And so there are people -- especially those who really don't know her at all -- who judge her negatively, generally based on how they themselves are, or their experiences in their personal lives, quite separate from her. The social writer Eric Hoffer said, "The suspicious mind believes more than it doubts. It believes in a formidable and ineradicable evil lurking in every person".
How does one live sanely, decently in a world where one ultimately can't judge a book by its cover? For in as much as you will meet suspect, wacky, deceitful people with their deep motives and obscure designs, you will also meet sincere, open, forthright individuals who really aren't after... whatever it is you think they're after. It surely isn't fair to treat those who are straight-shooting the same as those who aren't, but sadly, that often seems to be what happens. Of course, we all are guilty to some extent of forming opinions based on externals, but more and more I am learning to check myself in that area.
I might, for example, once have thought that a certain lady was stuck-up because she never smiled back at me, but I've now learnt to instead think, she must be preoccupied, or she simply didn't see me. When we go into negative presumptions and judgements, then we are on a slippery slope. The fact is, we really can't form any fair opinions about people we don't know inside out, over time and through experience, and that covers a very large percentage of the people we will ever come into contact with. I am in fact an extremely shy, introverted, hermetic person, yet many people seem to think I'm this outgoing, gregarious party animal. Well, I do have manners, and I will be polite and friendly, but having a drink with me means orange juice, and the supermarket is really the high point of my week.
I suppose we're always in danger of negative presumptions and judgements. How true it is that "we judge others by their behaviour, while we judge ourselves by our intentions". But as Jesus Himself said, "Do not judge and criticize and condemn others, so that you may not be judged and criticized and condemned yourselves. For just as you judge and criticize and condemn others, you will be judged and criticized and condemned, and in accordance with the measure you [use to] deal out to others, it will be dealt out again to you.
"Why do you stare from without at the very small particle that is in your brother’s eye but do not become aware of and consider the beam of timber that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, Let me get the tiny particle out of your eye, when there is the beam of timber in your own eye?" (Matt 7:1-4).
Well clearly, there's no point wishing that one could take all people at face value, all the time. But I do think that, while we cannot always know or control other people's desires and motives, we can know and control our own. We can be straightforward people who really are as we appear. Some say I'm naive, as if naivete, simplicity and trust are things to be avoided or scorned. But as far as this goes, I still don't believe that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" -- one can't deal positively with other people's devious, crooked, suspicious behaviour by becoming similarly so. Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, unless you repent (change, turn about) and become like little children [trusting, lowly, loving, forgiving], you can never enter the kingdom of heaven [at all]" (Matt 18:3, ital mine).
Over a year ago, I actually wrote a somewhat related post, titled, Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes'. "It seems to me that in showing one side to the public, and another in private, deceit and hypocrisy are reinforced and encouraged; it's sad that we often can't tell if a person truly is caring, kind, trustworthy or noble," I'd written. "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone was the same regardless of circumstances, or who they're dealing with? If people were frank, straightforward, and genuine -- weren't phony, superficial, or false? If you could take a person at face value, and at their word?" (the entire post is here)
In trying to deal with her colleague's behaviour, my girlfriend came upon this excellent article by Mona Westman et al. Entitled How to Accept a Person's Word at Face Value, Ms Westman writes, "Think about what makes you wary of a person's word. Prior history might teach you that someone has lied before, or made promises that they have then broken... In this case, you are probably justified in not taking their word as gospel but in seeking more justification for their word. On the other hand, if you experience any of the following reasons, it might be time to stop being so wary:
- You're always suspicious of other people's motivations and don't think that anybody can be trusted
- You heard someone else say that this person cannot be trusted
- You make assumptions about the person based on their looks, race, language, culture, etc.
- This person is a man/woman and men/women are not trustworthy (generalization from prior experience)
- My gut instincts are always right
- Avoid making assumptions about people based on their background, race, etc. Everyone is an individual and everyone brings different experiences of life with them, much of which you can learn from
- Analyze situations in your life where someone has hurt you by being untrustworthy. See those for the situations they were and don't reapply them to every person in your life. It is important to learn the warning signs of untrustworthy behavior but it is equally important not to generalize these experiences to every person you meet in life
- Be open to trusting people. Trust breeds trust and if you initiate it without expecting anything in return, you're already ahead. People appreciate being trusted