Our View of Other People

Posted on April 28, 2016


“I never met a man that I didn’t like.”  Will Rogers

“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  Abraham Lincoln

I recently returned from a trip abroad.  The shuttle driver that picked us up at the airport was nice enough to us.  However, he spent most of the ride from the airport complaining about the people he needed to deal with on a regular basis (e.g. the stupidity of other drivers and travelers who had not planned ahead how they were going to get where they needed to go).  I was not particularly offended (even though he could easily be sharing with the next passenger about how dumb/annoying I was), but felt rather sorry for him.  It did not seem like he was particularly happy with his life.

Here’s my theory.  I think that the way we talk to ourselves about other people impacts all areas of our lives.  First, if you really feel that you are constantly surrounded by idiots, you probably are not going to be very happy yourself.  Having a general dislike for the people you encounter on a daily basis just sounds like an unpleasant experience.  Second, if your default setting is that other people are defective and bad, that contempt is going to tend to come across.  If people sense that you do not like them, it will adversely impact your relationships, your career, and by extension your standard of living, and even mental and physical health.

I have a friend for whom one of his taglines is, “Never assume malice where ignorance will suffice.”  My experience of people is that most do not tend to be malicious.  As a breed, we can be oblivious, even self-absorbed, but most of us are not going through life intentionally inflicting distress or injury upon others.  When we do, it is more often a byproduct of our self-focus and lack of awareness.

Further, as a therapist, I can confidently assert that what people say and do makes sense if you understand the context.  Human beings are an emotional lot, but not, on the whole, irrational.  Generally, even our most destructive behaviors, we came by honestly.  That is to say, there was something in our history that caused us to view the world the way we do and to act as we do.  Most people are generally of good intent.  If we can grant them that as our default position, our own life will be much more satisfying.

As an aside, depression (particularly in men) often manifests as irritability rather than sadness.  One could make a “chicken or the egg” argument about whether the depression caused the irritability or the irritability contributed to the depression.  In any event, an ongoing irritation with others could be a sign of depression and would be worth looking into.

Returning to my original hypothesis, the way we talk to ourselves about others matters.  As John Ortberg observed, “Resentment if like drinking rat poison yourself, and waiting for the rat to die.”  Extending grace to others, even if it is only in how you talk to yourself about them, is very powerful.  Giving others the benefit of the doubt might increase your own happiness and life satisfaction.

Besides, as my grandmother used to say, “You catch more flies with honey that you do with vinegar.”