According to the Golden Rule, you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’ve always liked the Golden Rule because it’s simple and logical. As a child, it reminded me of the part of the Lord’s Prayer, “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I saw this as an agreement that if we were forgiving of others, then we could ask to be forgiven ourselves – that we would ask no more for ourselves than we would be willing to do for others – and thus would treat other people the way that we would want to be treated – the Golden Rule. As an adult, however, I’ve encountered some logical gaps in the Golden Rule. Specifically, it doesn’t work very well when others don’t want to be treated the way that I want to be treated. So, I find myself treating someone the way I want to be treated, and they are treating me the way that they want to be treated, but this doesn’t produce reciprocity because we’re not actually treating each other the same way. Let me give a specific example for which I have received prior permission (because, of course, I would want someone to get my permission before posting anything that involved me on a blog).

Over the past year, my husband and I started going out with our neighbors on Friday nights as a regular couples date night kind of thing. Times when we would be unavailable on a Friday night (a Friday night work event, a trip over spring break, a research conference), I would let the neighbors know that one or both of us wouldn’t be around on Friday. So, when my husband and I had plans to go to the beach for Memorial Day Weekend with our kids, I told our neighbors that we were leaving on Friday afternoon so that they would know that we would not be in town to go out with them. As the weekend after Memorial Day Weekend approached, we had no formal plans to go out with our neighbors on Friday. So, I didn’t necessarily expect that we would or would not be going out with them but expected that we would figure it out on Friday, like we’ve done over the past year. As it turned out, we didn’t see them on Friday or for the entire weekend. On Monday, we learned that they had been invited to spend the weekend at the beach with other friends and had left on Friday afternoon. And this got me to thinking about the Golden Rule.

There has never been any explicit agreement that we should tell each other in advance if we weren’t going to be available to go out on Friday night. So, I really had no way of knowing what my neighbors would want or expect. Thus, I had followed the Golden Rule and told the neighbors about our beach trip because that’s what I would have wanted them to do but, importantly, not because that’s what they wanted me to do. If they never cared whether I told them in advance about our being unavailable for a Friday night outing, then they were also following the Golden Rule because they were treating us the way that they would want to be treated. I want to point out that this isn’t a big deal because my husband and I were still able to go out on Friday night. It’s not like the babysitter showed up and we hung out with her for a while and then told her to go home because the neighbors weren’t around. My husband and I went out to dinner and a movie. However, in different circumstances, I think that following the Golden Rule can get people into trouble in their relationships if there are important differences in how they want to be treated and never any explicit discussions of those differences. In particular, the big trouble comes when following the Golden Rule fails to produce reciprocity and a failure to recognize that everyone was operating in good faith but that people have different expectations and needs.

Of course, an alternative approach to the Golden Rule would be to treat others as they treat us because this could be guide for how they expect to be treated and would guarantee reciprocity. However, I have repeatedly told my children that this is not how the Golden Rule is supposed to work (i.e., the Golden Rule would not support taking your brother’s new Lego Ninjago minifigure without asking because he had taken your Lego Star Wars minifigure without asking. Neither child is okay with having a toy taken, and the Golden Rule works quite well in situations where everyone has the same expectations.)

Instead of treating others as you want to be treated or treating others as they treat you, a better approach might be to communicate with one another about how you and they want to be treated. If someone’s expectations are too high or their willingness to meet your expectations is too low, that’s one thing. But, for a lot of things, it would probably work to communicate about what you want. Indeed, in asking permission to blog about this, my neighbor and I discussed when we would both want to know if the other were unavailable on Friday night and agreed to follow this moving forward. And guess what? It’s simple and logical.

About the Author

Pamela Keel

Pamela Keel, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University.

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