I am judgmental

July 5, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More

There’s too many people out there actually get to know them all. While I’m walking down the street, or through a park or through a store, I pass by hundreds of faces and there is no way that I could possibly have enough time to get to know all of these people. In the grocery store, for example, I might pass four or five different people while walking around a single corner of an aisle.  There’s no time to get to know all these people and I find it impossible to walk past them without conjuring up an instant impression of who they are. Therefore, I am confessing that I am consciously and unremittingly judgmental.

It’s not that I categorize people by “race” or gender. That would be stupid, given that there’s so many different kinds of people of every “race” or either gender. Nor do I judge people by what seems to be their social economic status. I know many people who work blue-collar jobs who are as smart as anyone I’ve ever met. I have friends who drive old cars when they could afford new cars. Or who wear unpretentious clothing by careful conscious design.  I know people who walk, take public transportation or bicycle because they prefer to get around that way. I know people who shop frugally even though they could afford almost anything at all. I know people who are sharp as can be, even though they don’t sound like it when they speak. Therefore, how is it that it is possible to be judgmental in good conscience?

I realized my propensity while listening to a friend discuss his trip to China a number of years ago. He was extremely impressed with the people of China in the cities where he traveled. As he described it, “As I looked into their eyes and I could see that their eyes were active and their minds were active. It seemed as though they were always thinking, always focused. But then, after two weeks in China, you come home and you see dozens of bleary-eyed slack-jawed Americans and you know you’re now in a different place with different kinds of people.”

After hearing this comment, I started thinking more about what I think of the people that I briefly encounter but who I don’t know. And I think of my friend’s comments about the people he saw in China.  I started thinking that he was correct that way too many Americans looked bleary-eyed, depressed, slack-jawed, bored, uncurious and unengaged. I know you might be thinking: I’m too judgmental. These people might be highly engaged, yet they simply don’t look like it. I’m certainly aware of that. I would add, though, that I have a lifetime of correlations under my belt. I often hear people speaking, just as you do when you see dozens of people as you walk down the street. And I see the way people walk. Many of them walk as though they are carrying a ton of weight on their backs. Many of them are carrying an extra hundred pounds of body fat, indicating to me that they are not taking good care of their bodies. Many of them are smoking. Some of them are drinking heavily. Far too many of them look incapable of walking briskly, which I assume (rightly or wrongly) to be correlated with the ability to think briskly.

But mostly, I look at peoples’ eyes, and I make judgments, in the blink of my eye, as to whether the people I am passing by are mentally engaged and upbeat about being alive.  In an instant, I am helpless but to make a judgment about whether many of the people I pass find life to be an opportunity or a burden.

To figure out the extent to which I am being unfair, we would need a controlled study. In the meantime, I suspect that what I am doing is the same thing that most people do. We are thoroughly connectionist beings–we are exquisite pattern matchers, and we do it effortlessly. We are helpless to not make assumptions (though we are certainly able to decide whether to act on those assumptions or to seek additional information before doing so).

I’m sure that some people will think that what I am doing needs to stop, because it is totally unfair. As I’ve already stated, however, I work hard at not acting on my snap judgments. I know that they’re not always accurate. I might only be batting 500 (or even 250). But that is what I do, because I don’t know how to not do it. I look at people and I get an impression and I try not to act on it and that’s the way it is hour after hour, day after day.  I don’t just do it on the streets, either. I do it when seeing a politician speak for the first time. I do it when wondering whether I can trust a salesperson. I do it when a beggar tells me his story. I do it when a stranger tells me that a restaurant is excellent.

Sometimes, I construct mini-biographies, based on the way someone walks down the sidewalk, and it all happens in a flash.   I notice how far he is walking from his wife or children.   I hear how loud he talks, and whether he is talking more than listening.   More goes into it than I can possibly consciously notice, including the tension if his musculature, whether he “looks” kind or controlling or ambitious.   What would it be like to be a friend of this person?  Quite often, I pretend that I know, even though I don’t really.  Or do I?  Freud once said that there is no way to hide who one is, and that it oozes from every pore.

My propensity is obviously worse than I first suggested, because I do sometimes act on my first impressions, even though I know better. When I need directions, I zero in on people who looks like they are engaged with the world. When I’m bored while standing in line, I don’t pick random people when making a comment about the situation. I pick people who look more receptive and more engaged.  So does everybody, especially when they flirt with someone who might become their life partner.

The urge to act on insufficient information is overwhelming, because there is no option.  Not at first. Not at that moment. And if we are decent, we will do our damnedest to make sure that we don’t make permanent judgments based upon ephemeral glimpses.   In the meantime, if I notice you somewhere, I will judge you–I will anything and everything and nothing to advice myself who you are.

End of confession.


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Category: Communication, Community, Networking, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. Hank says:

    Erich, I simply can't help but think we're really not as far removed from our ancient pre-human roots as some of us would like to think.

    An animal needs to be able to make a snap decision and act on instinct, perhaps to evade something that wants to eat it or take advantage of a mating opportunity as soon as it presents itself. Scanning a group of unknowns for individuals we think we might be able to trust, or that we might have to avoid, is only natural in a social species. People who live in cities do this every single day, often subconsciously. When making these decisions we use a combination of instinct, personal experience and even the shared experiences of others (something other animals can't do nearly as effectively as ourselves) to separate a group of unknowns into sub-groups of "perhapses". This instant separation gives us confidence to go out into the world full of people we don't know and live our lives. If we couldn't separate potential friend from foe we may well default on the side of caution, assume none are friends and live as paranoid recluses. Lord knows I'm a little reluctant to leave the house sometimes, and I can't put my finger on why – I would just rather not leave. And I'm always happy to go home early. From anything, anywhere. Anyway…

    We all do it and we all have prejudices. It's a survival mechanism! The problems occur when that instant mechanism that separates friend from foe is allowed to overcome a person's reason. Suddenly, everyone who looks or dresses a certain way is automatically assumed to carry the same traits as everyone else who superficially resembles them.

    Erich, something tells me you're perfectly conscious of your "friend or foe" mechanism. Too many people seem to just let that mechanism off the leash and don't analyse or filter their responses to it. Their distrust of certain types or groups can spread, meme-like, through communities and down through families, all too often with tragic consequences. I think a little more introspection of the kind you've displayed is more than warranted in humans and long overdue.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Hank: Thanks for your thoughts on this.

      I agree that judgmentalism works both ways, the end result is not always that I judge people derogatorily. I often judge people as wholesome and capable. As I suggested, I don't do this based on whether the person is wearing a fancy suit. I look at their face, I notice their eyes, I see how they walk and I hear the cadence of their voice. Sometimes, I make ultra quick judgments about the kind of relationship two strangers have–in a blink of an eye. When I see a man and a woman talking, I find myself instantly making an assumption about the kind of relationship they have–based on almost nothing I can articulate. Sometimes it SEEMS icy. Something it SEEMS like they are great friends. Sometimes they seem to be full of lust. How often am I correct in my snap judgment? I don't know, but I'd like to know.

      If I really want to know, I'll take the time to find our more about the person by getting to know them. But that's not possible for more of the people more of the time. There's too damned many people!

  2. Stacy Kennedy says:

    People who are depressed, poor, overweight, or who find life a burden (rather than an "opportunity")can be well worth knowing.

    It's one thing to recognize (or tentatively hypothesize) a stranger's mood or social status; it's another thing to make a moral judgment about them based on such things.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Stacy: I agree with what you've written. On the other hand, I (and I expect everyone else too) are wired up to make snap judgments or else we might (as Hank suggests) be paralyzed with indecision. The trick is to not let it run rampant. Not all people dressed like executives are greedy and selfish. Not all people with bizarre tattoos are bizarre (they might have just gone through a phase). Just because one is poor doesn't mean that one is desperate or that one isn't comfortable with one's life. A little thought is all that is necessary to cure snap judgments.

      I try not to make moral judgments based on my snap judgments. Seeing people who are massively overweight is a difficult one for me to overcome. I've fought the urge to overeat all my life. In fact, I just lost 15 pounds in the past 2 months. When I am overweight, I judge myself as morally deficient–I am abusing my own body, exposing myself to disease and denying myself the full potential to get around with full energy to get things done. When I think of myself as being overweight (which I'm not at the moment), I think of slow-motion suicide. I think of dysfunction. When I see others who are horrifically overweight, I also think of dysfunction. But I remind myself that we live in a toxic environment filled with high calorie, low nutrition food. I remind myself that many people are under terrible stress because they need to work 2 jobs to make ends meet for their families. I remind myself that many people learned their terrible eating habits when they were young and that their social environment continues to encourage these abuses. I remind myself that obesity is an epidemic–overwhelming societal problem–not something caused by simple individual moral lapse. Thoughts like those put the world into better perspective.

      Yet that little voice often comes in and renders simplistic judgment, unless "I" take control and override it. But overriding snap judgments doesn't eliminate them. A movie that illustrated this was Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."

  3. Ben says:

    I admit that I blatantly profile when I have to do something like choose a checkout line at stores. I judge not only the cashier, but also the people in the lines. If I notice the cashier is joking around with other employees or seems otherwise distracted, I avoid that line like the plague. If I see elderly people standing in the line, or somebody who looks/acts like a foreigner, or somebody who looks like they will be digging their pockets for exact change, I factor that information into my decision-making "algorithm" on which line to get in.

  4. Tony Coyle says:

    'judgmental' is an extremely loaded word. It implies the weight of censure, of 'taking ones measure' and generally implies the person being 'judged' is somehow failing in some way.

    This is why I don't 'judge', but I do observe!

    I too notice whether or not people are engaged or dis-engaged, upbeat or depressed, happy or sad.

    As an engaged, active, curious, intensely questioning person – I seek people who will respond. I seek out the supermarket line with the chatty cashier — I can engage with that person (I'm probably the person causing the line in the first place, Ben!). I seem to 'seek out' people sitting in airport lounges, in coffee shops, in cafeterias and bars, and strike up conversations. By identifying 'engaged' people I've never been rebuffed. I've not always had an enlightening conversation, but if the person I'm speaking with doesn't leave more engaged than he/she entered then I feel that I've failed!

    When I host and lead meetings – I try to engage everyone… especially the quieter people. They don't always know most (contrary to the old saw), but they are there for a reason – they must have something to contribute: it's my job to elicit that contribution.

    So – I'm not judgmental, but I am very, very opinionated about people!

  5. Erika Price says:

    Snap judgments are natural and a real mind-saver. Our instincts to categorize are so inborn and so effective that it takes a truly mindful effort to snap out of them when they do fail. I say this as both a hugely judgmental, prejudiced person as well as a sometime victim of others' judgments.

    In my case, being judged and judging go hand-in-hand. I have a mean face. Ever since childhood people have told me to "smile", to stop frowning, to "cheer up". I'm not approachable. A mean face provides a great way to avoid unwanted advances and accosting of all sorts. It's also a great way to stew in one's own grumpy, prejudiced juices.

    Like you, Erich, I see many people who look vacant and dimwittted. In class, it seemed that such dull-looking people also had intellectually lazy things to say. I've always had a predilection to look down upon the obese, the sloppy, and those who look mentally comatose. Often these instincts seem to be correct.

    The sad half of this experience lies in the connections left unmade because of prejudice. Was the dumb-looking bleach blonde in the desk next to me actually witty and remarkable? Did I let one silly comment drive me away from a potential colleague or friend? What if you, Erich, or anyone else on DI passed me on the street? Would you see my frown and my facial piercing and dismiss me? Would I see your age or something else and dismiss you? What do our time-saving prejudices cause us to miss?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: Good thoughts. Yes, the predilection to make snap judgments is a heuristic. Often useful, but sometimes woefully off-base.

      One thing that provoked me to write this post is walking past the other parents in the hallway after I drop my kids off at school. They mostly look like typical folks; nothing in particular comes to mind as to who they are. Over the past few years, I've gotten to know quite a few of them. One is a psychologist who teaches at a nearby university. One is a Grammy Award winning jazz pianist. One has authored many volumes of social/political philosophy and lectures all over the world. One of them is a female who is an incredibly talented writer who write at this site, and who puts everything she has into parenting her two girls.

      What does this tendency to be judgmental tell me about these people? Nothing at all. I had to take the time to get to know them or else I would have simply walked right on by, maybe hundreds of times, and never gotten to know them.

      I agree with you that there is often some basis for prejudice, but not always. There is no substitute for really getting to know someone. But beware, that many times we THINK that we actually know someone and they later do something that demonstrate to us that we didn't know them at all. But that shouldn't keep us from trying. But, as I tried to state in my post, there's not enough time in the world to take the time to try to get to know all the people that we walk past. Thus, the snap judgments about who people are based on not much of anything at all. It's all very unsatisfying.

  6. Erika Price says:

    Today's XKCD comic discusses a sense quite similar to yours, Erich, that most people walking around are vacant. It makes for a cute little remind that as we stare down the dimwitted faces of those around us, we might just look a little glassy too.

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