Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Your Own Rorschach Test

Quick -- think of a time when you felt that someone unfairly judged you using incomplete information, inferences, hearsay, or whatever else put a better, fairer decision out of reach. If you don't have one, sit and think for second before moving on.


Now think of a time when you unfairly judged or otherwise drew a conclusion about someone else using incomplete information, inferences, hearsay, etc.

Got one?

If so, I bet that took you a bit longer. Why? Because other people are judgemental and make unfair snap decisions. You, however, don't -- hence the difficulty with Step Two.

Once we cut away from that pretense, it's important for us all to admit that we're constantly judging the world around us and those in it even though we lack total information when we do it. It would be impossible not to. Because we are NEVER going to have complete information, we obviously have to adapt and use shortcuts...otherwise, simple decisions like whether to wear a jacket, what to order for lunch, and whether to take the bus or the train would become impossible gut-wrenching tasks that would prevent us from doing, well, just about anything else.

So, yes, we're always judging (as we must) so let's stop pretending that we don't. What we can control, however, is how we judge. In other words, in spite of the constant *information deficit* we face, we can default towards assuming the best, or assuming the worst. And which direction we decide to go says a lot more about us than the subjects we judge. That's why it reminds me of the ink blot test, or Rorschach Test, that psychologists use. The ink blots never change, but based on people's perceptions of the blots, psychologists are able to draw inferences about the viewers. Fascinating stuff, right?

Here are a couple real-life examples I've noticed:

(1) At work. Because many of the people I interact with at work don't really know what I do all day (which is quite fine by me, thank you, as it mostly involves research-type work from behind a closed door), I often get asked or ribbed a bit about what it is I actually do. There are two distinct forms that it comes in, and they're easily discernible from one another -- first, there's the honest, plaintive inquiry -- "Hey, man, what do you mostly occupy your time with? Who do you reach out to? What sources do you use? Oh, really, how do you like it?" From the tone and the open, inquiring nature of the questions, it's very clear this person is at least neutral, but is mainly assuming the best (i.e. there's something of value there, and he/she just doesn't understand it but wants to). The second form, however, is FAR less inquisitive, far more opinionated and far more likely to include such wonderful zingers as "...but you don't really do anything anyway" or a sarcastic "like you serve a purpose here," etc.

In other words, my role at the command is the ink blot. To put it into dorky scentific terms, I'm the x-variable, or the constant. But one person sees something they don't know, assumes the best, and asks the open question, whereas another makes a negative assumption without seeking out more information. The viewer/interpreter changes, but the blot doesn't.

(2) At church. This shouldn't amaze any churchgoer. As someone who's moved around MANY times in the past five years and been to many churches, I could tell you hands-down you're not going to find many more places where lots of judging is going on, never mind the admonitions of the man whose life and death we're there to celebrate. At my church, it's a quite large sanctuary and the services have sort of an open, come-and-go feel. So you could literally go for weeks and weeks on end, and unless you knew where a certain person sat, or had a way to seek them out, you might never see them. So every week, my girlfriend, her mom, her aunt, and other assorted family members and I roll in just after 10 a.m., find seats in roughly the same area, grab the kids from Sunday school and leave around noon. Almost without fail, someone who we haven't seen in a while will come to say hi, and, again, it tends to fall between two visible, easily discernible extremes.

First, on the good side, there's the big grin, the bear hug, and the "it's been awhile, neighbor" that's said in a friendly, neutral, no-fault sort of way. That's, of course, always well-received by us, and it seems quite well-intentioned. The person saying it seems to realize that while, yes, we haven't seen each other, that could be for any number of reasons, including the possibility that we've just missed each other week after week.

On the other hand, however, there is the "greeting" of the more judgemental, scornful variety. There's the inevitable "Where have you beens" said without a smile or even honest curiosity, but the frowning of someone who feels they're calling you out for having done something wrong. You might have to see it to believe it (it's one of those things that's sort of hard to *capture* in written form), but if you can believe this, we've even had the same people make the same snide comments about our *never* being there.. in consecutive weeks! Unless someone had been stricken with amnesia, I know that seems hard to believe, but it's true. We honestly haven't figured out a way to respond without coming off as sarcastic or defensive ourselves.

All I do is ignore it and laugh it off, which is about all I can do with the work example, too. As the Choosing A Soundtrack (linked to your right) author has written before, arguing with the irrational or the idiotic is often a fool's errand anyway, as it quickly becomes difficult to tell who the idiot is in such arguments.

Before I give you the wrong impression about either my workplace or church, mind you, I'm talking about a very small percentage of people here. Many more fall into the "assume the best" category, but really, the VAST majority of people have way too much going on in their own lives to care that much about others. Most people, I really believe, are too busy to spend their time worrying about what others do or don't do.

Still, if there's any point to this blog entry, let it be this: Let's start by admitting we all judge the world around us, including the people around us. Great -- now that we've disabused ourselves of the fiction that we don't judge or make assumptions, let's try to always assume the best when we lack complete information, which is virtually always. To do any less than that says nothing about the people we judge, but it says everything about ourselves.

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