Thursday, August 23, 2012

Judging People is Hard. How to Make it Less So.

I'll come out of the gate stating that this is a subject I have especially strong feelings about. One of the dominant themes in my thinking is how to treat people objectively and judge them properly, as the vast majority of the misery in my life has come from dealing with horrendous and toxic people who poisoned my life, such as by me not identifying their bad nature timely enough, not condemning them properly, and so on. To avoid ever going through such years of hell again I frequently think about the nature of relationships and ways of treating people, even if I am predominantly a loner.

As can already be ascertained, I am not an advocate of "Judge not lest ye be judged," but rather "Judge and prepare to be judged." Judging people is important, because if you don't do it how can you keep bad people out and good people in? To so much as know who's good and who's bad requires an act of judgement, and to keep relationships healthy you need to know how to judge people righteously and act accordingly.

Undelightfully, however, the majority of the people I've dealt with in my life have been, in practice, advocates of the former quoted slogan. These last few years of my life have been heavily directed at getting some severely, irredeemably frustrating people out of my life that have made me unhappy for years, and to my immense disappointment I received an incredible amount of opposition to my decision, which forced me to cut out swaths more people out of my life because the specific individuals they wanted me to associate with were simply too miserable to deal with to be worth having all those other people in my life. The root of their particular errors were simple evasions: They didn't want to face the facts as they were, and often ignored my stated position and/or distorted it. Though, upon thinking -- though this doesn't excuse their evasion -- I realize there are certain complexities in relationships that make it hard to judge people, which can make it frustrating for a particular person to convince others of his particular estimate to other people who are merely outsiders looking in.

While the major problem in my own conflicts has been evasions from other people, I realize that being an outsider looking at relationships from the sidelines can make it extremely difficult to see what the person dealing with it first-hand sees, so sometimes the person dealing with it first-hand can unfortunately appear unreasonable with his estimate, even though he has access to a lot more evidence than the outsider.

As I advocate being judgmental of people, I more strongly advocate being just, giving estimates that fit the evidence to the best of one's thinking ability. Sometimes that can even include withholding judgment when there isn't enough evidence to draw a conclusion, but it never means refusing to judge.

Simply put, to be able to accurately judge the nature of a particular individual takes both time and a variety of contexts to be able to see multiple facets of their character, to be able to form a proper estimate. The process of judging is always fallible, but to avoid the most serious pitfalls, avoid being hasty and forming judgments in limited scenarios.

This may not be exhaustive, as it's off the top of my head, but here's a list of factors I think everyone should keep in mind when trying to form accurate judgments about people:

1.) Time: Seeing the various facets of a person's character takes time. It depends on how you deal with that person as to how much time is needed. If the person is only your coworker that you deal with a half-hour a day, then it might only take a few days to begin forming an accurate judgment on how this person is as your coworker. If they're your family member, however, whom you have to deal with for days each week by default of being genetically related to them, then that same process, since the judgment involves making a much deeper conclusion, can take months or years.

The short of it is: take your time. I've seen far too many mistakes made by people who hastily form estimates of people after having dealt with them for a day or even mere minutes, only to be severely disappointed later on.

For instance, I once rented a room from an alcoholic landlord who forced other people, especially her tenants, to deal with her irresponsible medical emergencies. Two of the tenants that I dealt with during my stay there both came into the home thinking very highly of the woman after having dealt with her for a week or so. One guy even questioned my negative estimate of her to me after about a week, as he couldn't see how I bore such a horrendous opinion of her.

Sure enough, however, after approximately a month both tenants were absolutely disgusted with the landlord. The one tenant who, while buzzed with alcohol, called our landlord "a wonderful woman," almost punched her when she got drunk and woke us up in the middle of the night by screaming. The other guy who questioned my negative opinion and stated he was happily willing to take care of her during her medical emergencies, since he was a guy with a "big heart," moved without telling her or paying the money he owed, and tore up his contract as a visible display of disgust.

It didn't take months and months to see the true nature of the landlord, it's just that these guys formed their estimates way too quickly, which led them to inevitable disappointment when they saw the other aggravating features of our landlord revealed over the weeks, such as how she nags people she hardly knows, interrupts conversations, obnoxiously relays her opinions while refusing to acknowledge others, forces other people to take care of her diabetes, and so on.

In another case, while I worked as a park ranger in Michigan, I noticed my boss had formed a positive estimate of a person who delivered a cake for a party the team was having. She had only spoke with the person for five minutes or fewer, and concluded from that interaction that they were a nice person, purely from the delivered cake and introductory mannerisms.

For my boss it didn't end up in disappointment since she didn't deal with the person any further than that, but mentally it made internal eye roll because I knew that person far more intimately, and knew from hours of experience that they were not nice. They were manipulative, a pathological liar, frequently push their opinions, resorted to yelling often, threw tantrums and then pretended it never happened, and so on. Judging from the fuller spectrum of behaviors I've observed, I know this person is far from nice. They only appear so when they want to make a good appearance and gain the approval of someone. Five minutes of interaction is WAY insufficient for determining how a person really is, except to be able to form an initial first impression. Although it didn't harm my boss' emotional well-being, this example does show how forming an estimate too quickly can lead to wildly inaccurate conclusions.

Take home point: Take your time when judging people! Distinguish between an estimate that's only a first impression, a deeper analysis of the person's being, a conclusion of their ultimate nature, and so on.

2.) Context and location: Or, in other words, the situations and scenarios in which you deal with a particular person. No one ever acts the same in every setting, regardless of the people available, the factors present, the actions they're performing, and so on. And obviously, a person will act differently in public in front of everyone than they will in private with one other person behind closed doors.

For me, this has probably been one of the biggest agitating factors in trying to relay an estimate of a particular person to someone else. I'll deal with the person one-on-one for hours behind closed doors, in absolute privacy, while the other person only deals with them for far less time out in public and out in the open, and only there. I observe far more of a different type of evidence that the other person does, because anyone will act considerably different in private where they're most comfortable displaying traits they wouldn't in public, but the person I'm trying to relay the estimate to will be incredulous because they can't get over what they observe in dealing with this person in public. Despite my ability to prove an individual is atrociously intrusive and temperamental in private, one-on-one interactions, the other person will cling to their estimate that the person is "nice" because, of course, that's all they see trait-wise when they deal with the person in restaurants, stores, etc.

Here might be a good time to consider that in forming judgments about people it can be a good idea to take other people's estimate into consideration, as they might be able to provide evidence and examples to you that you would be otherwise unable to experience yourself. For instance -- to leap to an extreme example for quick clarity -- a person who is absolutely kind to you in person, always, may prove to be unforgivably evil if another person reveals to you that they were a molestation victim of this person, and that he continues traumatizing people today. You might never suffer such an act from him, but that added context from another person ought to factor into the conclusion you draw about that molester.   

Here is also a good time to emphasize that all the factors on this list interact and cannot be isolated. For proof, I was once sent a letter by a complete and absolute stranger who gently encouraged me to resume relations with a terrible person I cut out of my life, for this person had spent many hours chatting and socializing with that other person in public, and held them in good regard. As noted above, taking time is important to forming proper judgments . . . but on this item we realize context is too. The writer had spent lots of time in dealing with the person I refused to, but in both a drastically different and unvaried context that they were continuously exposed to only certain portions of this person's character, which led to a drastically different estimate and, of course, their inability to see how I could justify deploring them.

The person that I had cut off in question I had dealt with for years, in a vast variety of situations and locations, for vast hours at time, both in public group settings and one-on-one privacy, and had been continuously exposed to astoundingly negative traits that I observed to be inexcusably stressful and, most important, constant throughout my years of dealing with them, which is why I refused to deal with them. I've experienced for years a ton of negatives that far outweighed any and all positives, and had more than enough time to conclude that this is a constant in this person's character, i.e. a part of their nature they regularly display, and refused to deal with them accordingly because I had enough time and evidence to conclude that future relations will be just as miserable, if not more so. This letter writer, however, was both unaware of these factors and probably never experienced them since they dealt with the person in public, so they saw an entirely different picture. Again, while it may not have resulted in grief for this particular person later on, it does show how a limited context can lead to wildly inaccurate conclusions. At the very least, this inaccurate conclusion would interfere with my willingness to befriend the letter-writer, as they're encouraging me to deal with someone who is damaging to my happiness.

In addition to time, realize that people act differently dependent upon the location, the other people they're dealing with, the scenarios, and so on. To use the coworker example above, dealing with the coworker for only a half-hour a day may give you only enough evidence of how they are as a coworker, because they're likely to only act in particular ways as your coworker, and in vastly different ways in their home life, at a store, in a group of people they don't know, etc.

3.) Relationship: Or in other words, exactly how you're connected to this person. A person will treat differently a perfect stranger than a family member they've known all their life, and still differently a family member they've just met at a reunion, and so on. How people relate to each other shows a whole other spectrum of behavior, reaching far broader than genetic relations versus voluntary associations. Here this item ought to emphasize that we should pay attention to how people treat others, not just ourselves.

A particularly frustrating example I have is all the bullies I had to deal with at my last job at a pizzeria. There offers some pretty poignant examples, as it shows how almost randomly selective people can be.

One particular bully I had was once my friend, when one day he randomly turned to perpetual anger to me, and bullied me from then on. I had not interfered with his well-being in the least nor spoken in derogatory terms behind his back, so the reason for his anger is extremely unclear, but his behavior was certainly unjustifiable. He glared at me, gave me the silent treatment, intentionally wasted my time during work, stood in my path when I was trying to clean a floor, and even once threw dishes at me. I had done nothing whatsoever to deserve those behaviors, yet suffered them. While once my friend, I came to hate him with a deep fury.

The let-down aspect of this is that most everyone else either had a decent enough relationship with him, or even thought fondly of him, which hurt me since those people were supposedly my friend too. After observing him over a period of months on multiple days, I came to understand that he was selectively bullying me, and only me in that workplace, for no explicit reason. Yet, despite being aware of this, most everyone else continued associating with him on positive grounds while being aware of his gross injustice towards me.

What this shows is how seemingly random any single person can be in how he treats others. He might be just and good to one, and randomly unjust to another for no clear reason. A high estimate you hold of one person could easily be impacted by observing him being unreasonably cruel to another, so we ought to pay attention to how one person treats *others* outside of oneself, to again broaden the context of evidence one has to pass an accurate judgment.

In my workplace example, my other coworkers, to be righteous and respectful to our friendship, should have taking to condemning him or severing relations, as they knew what he did was totally out of line, so it was a betrayal to our friendship to continue being friends with me while passively observing him outright bully me, even display violent gestures at me. To judge my previous friendships there in return, my attachment to those people is greatly lessened or even eliminated by the fact that they would allow their "friend" to inflict so much stress and misery on me while being his friend as well. It's simply not right.

4.) Psychological pressure: Here's probably the most unique and confusing one, which is largely a derivation of the time aspect. What I mean by "psychological pressure" is how one's emotional reactions change -- by intensifying, weakening, going from positive to negative, etc. -- depending on not only how much time one has spent dealing with another, but also how one has been subjected to another person's behavior patterns in repetition. 

To people observing relationships from the outside looking in, this must be the most confusing: It's easy to fail to comprehend or emphasize with a strong emotion a person may feel towards another, because they might view, say, a behavioral pattern a few times or even just once, and try drawing their conclusions from that. To speak of the negative, people are all too easy to err on failing to understand why a certain behavioral pattern would enrage you, even if they've experienced it themselves. The answer is easy: There is a total psychological different in reacting to a negative behavioral pattern once, and reacting to it again after the 200th time.

Let's use a weird example to clarify. Imagine someone taps you on the shoulder dozens of times, intentionally trying to annoy you, and always refusing to cease after you acknowledge and ask them to stop. You would obviously and justly get very upset, even severely angry, after being subjected to dozens of instants of this behavior pattern, which continues and continues despite your calls for cessation. One tap on the shoulder would be polite and sufficient to get one's attention, and really very few people would get upset at that, but dozens and dozens in a row? Of course anyone would get angry!

But also imagine that an outsider walks in on you and that tapper just as the final tap sends your temper over the edge, and you begin yelling at the person and pushing away for him to stop. In your context, you're totally justified: He's clearly trying to antagonize you on purpose, deserves no politeness due to his persistence, and even deserves physical force (the pushing away) since he continues despite your vocal pleading, but to the person who just came in it could easily look like the person tapped you on the shoulder once and that you're the one being irrational and aggressive. It's not true, but it's all the outsider can see.

So this applies everywhere else. It can be very confusing to understand why a particular person might become outrageously disgusted at a particular person's mannerisms, such as eating loudly, when you haven't dealt with that specific person as long as the other one has. You may have experienced the loud eating on but one occasion; they could have been observing it for years

Even if you do have patience as solid as a rock, there's always the possibly of subjecting it to enough water to erode it away. What doesn't annoy you but once may enrage you after the 24th incident.

The number of times we're subjected to particular patterns and trends certainly does have a big impact on our emotions, and can drastically change our estimate of a person over time if they continue. You might be completely tolerant and patient in dealing with a person's irrational temper the first time around, but after two years and dozens of incidents later it may build up to enough stress -- enough psychological pressure -- that it may become grounds for never speaking to the person again.

Aside from emphasizing the effect time has on relationships, this also emphasizes context. When you're an outsider, you're not going to witness the same amount of evidence of a person's character if you only deal with them as a coworker in comparison to someone who lives with them. That can make it very hard to fathom why a person might experience certain emotions, either positive or negative, because you may not have experienced a fraction of the consistent patterns and trends the other person has. A woman you hardly know who mainly attracts your indifference might have a love-sick suitor at her hand who spends far more hours with her than you, while a guy you consider yourself good friends with could be making his roommate vomit from the stress of living with him. Time both changes and intensifies or weakens emotions.

This factor has probably been my personal number one obstacle in trying to convince other people to consider adopting an estimate of a particular person. They simply don't see the amount of evidence that I've seen, or how it changes perception after being subjected to it repeatedly. The letter writer above who encouraged me to deal with a person I disassociated from probably had only known the person for a series of months, whereas I've dealt with the person for nearly two decades and consequently knew and experienced far, far, far more than that writer ever would. Additionally, in trying to relay a negative estimate to another about a person I lived with, it was far too easy for them to encourage me to brush it off and just tolerate it when their relationship with the person was severely delimited while I was subjected to the negative behaviors nearly 24/7 across multiple years. Dealing with a person's irrationality for hours a day over years is definitely going to be interpreted differently from the perspective of a person who may only observe it for fifteen minutes a week or less.

In short, if you find yourself finding it difficult to understand why a person might feel such strong emotions about another, consider the difference in time you spend with them: As the number of experiences from which the emotion stems multiply, so does the emotion's intensity and endurance.

* * * * *

There might be, if not certainly, be more factors relevant in trying to accurately judge a person, but here's a list of things to keep in mind, which should make the process easier. There's probably never going to be a fool-proof way to be able to form just estimates of a person in a prompt manner, as you'll never have *direct* access to the sincerity of their intentions (say, to change for the better) nor will you ever be able to mystically predict how the passing of time might change them as they continue to exercise their freewill and make choices, but this ought to at least limit the more serious errors.

This is important from both the perspective of judging the people you deal with AND understanding how people may have formed their estimates of others, and why they formed them. Aside from the obvious necessity of avoiding bad people in your life, it's also important in that it's relevant to determining when it's rational to encourage persons to maintain healthy relationships, and when to leave them alone from negatives they want to walk away from.

The latter is the primary reason why I've had to regretfully cut off so much of my family when I moved to Texas. I wanted to excommunicate but two toxic people in my life who added little else but misery and stress, and everyone's persistent disagreement and irrational calls for me to reassociate made me conclude that they were also detrimental to my happiness. While more than likely rooted in inexcusable evasion, their failure to understand how the amount of time I spent with the person, the various contexts and locations I dealt with them in,  the nature of our relationship, and the nature of "psychological pressure" made them unable to comprehend the intensity of disgust I felt towards those people, so they treated me as if I were somehow being unreasonable and overreactive. I have seen and experienced far more than they have, and had far more puzzle pieces to put together in getting a picture of that person's nature, so they should have considered that and left me alone since the relations were so immensely unhappy. They lost their contact with me as a result of their persistent encouragement for me to resume unhappy, toxic dealings.

Judge and prepare to be judged, for it is necessary to be able to keep good people in your life, excise bad, try to help your friends maintain happy relations, and know when to leave them alone otherwise.       

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