Friday, August 3, 2012

on face value, and judgement


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
"If you have any of the above negative approaches to trust, it's time to discard your generalizations and replace these with realistic explanations. Trust involves assessing the situation and context as much as the person. Even the much touted trust in one's own gut instincts is often an excuse to let generalizations come to the forefront. Here are some ways to be more trusting, and to be more ready to take a person's word at face value:
  • 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
But more importantly, I strive to remember what the apostle Paul wrote of love: "[It] is ever ready to believe the best of every person". And, "Above all things have intense and unfailing love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins [forgives and disregards the offenses of others]" (1 Peter 4:8).


Unknown said...

Lady, I hear you. I'm pretty straightforward myself, and I expect the same from other people. At my age, I'm past all the sneaky, suspicious, soap-operatic stuff, but I know a lot of people who aren't. Maybe it's a maturity thing, but you're right, sometimes we forget and have to adjust. It's so true though, "Trust breeds trust, people appreciate being trusted".

Beth said...

Another well-written post, Janice. This is something I've given a lot of thought to myself, as I have so often trusted people only to be blindsided later. It's been hard sometimes to not fall into cynicism. I like the verse from Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In fact, I wrote a post about it a year ago. It is very, very hard to strike that balance, but I keep striving for it. Thank you for this post.

Erin said...

This was an absolutely wonderful post, and something I myself have been struggling with recently. Like the friend you mentioned, I tend to believe that most people are truthful and straightforward, and am easily hurt or deflated when I find out later that someone has been lying or purposefully hurtful.

I haven't found the balance yet, as I believe that we still need to be loving, yet also set appropriate boundaries so we don't become jaded and therefore perpetuate the cycle by becoming the people who are afraid to be honest and straightforward.

This has given me much food for thought... thank you so much for writing something so thoughtful, and for being so very open about it!

Libby said...

What a beautiful post! I think we ought to be more like little children. They are more trusting. They are more resilient.

You're right that sometimes people's past experiences have caused them to feel the need to always "think ahead" or "wonder" about everyone. Personally, I think it's exhausting. At some point you really have to "let go and let God" because the truth is that we will all be hurt or misunderstood at some point in life, but if we trust everything into His hands, then we don't have to spend our entire lives living on the edge, wondering if this person means us well or not. He'll just handle it. Sometimes a bit of naivete is a good thing. :-)

Thank you for stopping by my blog. I'm following you back. :-)


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