Each year at this time, I post some thoughts on how we judge the people we know and care about most. During the holiday season we often see more of our family and friends, and our relationships with them may be foremost in our minds. More generally, how we relate to others and how they behave in return may be of heightened importance to us.
During this time many of us find ourselves judging others and trying to decide whether or not to express those judgments. The judgments are diverse: "Is my mother/father/cousin so critical that I can no longer bear it?" "Is my sister a better person than I am?" "Are my brother's children out of control?" "Is my adult son drinking too much?"
Each of us might also wonder "Am I too critical?" or "Are my friends and I all too critical?"
People often feel the need to judge others and to express their judgments. Psychologists have outlined a number of relevant motives behind the urge to judge others. For example, we sometimes compare ourselves to someone similar to us who is not doing as well — called a "downward comparison" — so as to make ourselves feel better. Alternatively, we may compare ourselves to someone like us who is doing a bit better, so as try to figure out the secrets of the person's success — "upward comparison".
The most essential judgments we make probably have to do with our responsibilities as members of a group: to detect others who are misbehaving or even dangerous and to protect and defend ourselves from them. These judgments on behalf of the group are, I think, somewhat different from the judgments we make for ourselves as to who might make a good friend or colleague.
We are, in that sense, double agents in our judgments — judging on behalf of others as well as for ourselves. When we "send someone a message" by expressing a judgment it is often not just for ourselves (even if it originates from our own perturbation and concerns). We may be upholding social standards that a person has violated. This is particularly so when commenting on parents who don't manage their children sufficiently, or conversely, are too overbearing with their children. When we say someone's clothing is too revealing or that someone drinks too much, smokes too much, or gossips too much — or judges too critically — we often are judging on behalf of social standards as much as for ourselves. According to the "social brain" hypothesis, the tendency to gossip itself may have evolved as a means to stabilize and promote smooth group functioning. Far from idle gossip or simple meanness, many judgments enforce social standards.
As social animals, living in groups with a wide variety of people, we also need to protect ourselves from certain judgments. Put most starkly, there are those among us whose judgments are simply off the mark or who we do not trust for other reasons. We judge those with poor judgment out of necessity — to protect ourselves: We conclude to ourselves, "They're crazy/drunk/mean and they don't know what they're saying," or in less severe instances, "They have other motives for saying what they do," and "Who made them such an expert?!" These are judgments that probably don't do much good to say aloud or directly to the person — if we are right, after all, the person often is too troubled or biased to receive the feedback in a useful way. The limitation of such judgments, of course, is the worry that our reckless and wild-seeming critic might be right. The person's harsh words may echo in our minds, worrying us as to the presence of any possible grain of truth, just as our own harsh words might haunt them (were we to have recklessly given voice to our thoughts). Sometimes there is some truth; other times not.
Along with the common holiday gift of an assortment of chocolates, fruits or nuts, people may also bestow an assortment of judgments. They may judge others to uphold the standards of the groups to which they belong — their family, friends, colleagues and communities. They also may judge on their own behalf, to make themselves feel better, to share information about others, or to help (or hurt) someone else. The judgments they provide may be accurate or wildly off the mark.
There is no easy way out of the judging maze. Not to judge is to avoid responsibility for oneself and others, yet to judge all the time leads to overcontrolling others (assuming they pay attention). So how do we do it better? To be a mindful judge involves considering ourselves and the process. Since ancient times, the wisest among us have taught their followers to judge themselves before judging others. Along those lines, we need to check our own emotional state and social impact. In this holiday period we often encounter the frustrations of our daily lives. If we see that we are frustrated or angry over everyday details, it is probably not a good time to judge. Judgments that convey caring, warmth, and respect are more likely to be helpful. Some of us naturally convey such warmth and respect, but others among us do not, and knowing where we are in this regard can be helpful in deciding what to say and how to say it. If you know you do not naturally come across warmly, some extra effort may be required to communicate something in a caring way.
Beyond that, it helps to know why we are judging. Is it to promote social standards? If so, we might preface a remark with, "You know, it doesn't bother me, but I wondered if you knew that others could judge what you just did as a problem?" Are we judging to protect ourselves from others' harsh and off-the-mark comments? If so, we may want to first check with a disinterested party to make sure we are not missing key feedback about ourselves. If it becomes plain that the person making the harsh judgment is indeed off base, it may be best to dismiss the comments privately — and to judge the judger without expressing our reaction; off-the-mark judgments can be signs that someone is hard to engage with constructively.
On other occasions, we might be judging to help someone become better. At those times, we might first ask someone we trust, "Does it make sense to say ‘x' to someone?" before doing so.
The way we judge others reflects our innermost qualities insofar as we judge thoughtfully and with sensitivity; it also affects our reputation in important ways. There is no way to make this easy, I fear, and most of us struggle with it. That said, I suspect that each of us can help create an environment where people judge one another in a more constructive way. We can compare ourselves "upward" to those who judge well so as to learn from them. We can strive to deliver our own judgments of others as best we can and only when those judgments might be of use. In these and other ways, we ourselves can learn to judge the people around us in a better fashion over time.
Enjoy the remaining holidays. The "Personality Analyst" will be on vacation until January 10th, 2011... (updated...Back on Jan 24th).
Revision(s): Light copy editing +36 hours of posting.
Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer