Let’s assume other people are not assholes.
It can feel like a monumental effort to do so, I know, but let’s give it a shot.
The guy who cut you off in traffic? Not trying to imply he’s somehow better than you, or trying denigrate your masculinity.
The woman speaking loudly for what seems like hours on her phone at a nearby table? She doesn’t realize the impact it’s having on those around her, or wasn’t raised to view such behavior as inappropriate, or is having a discussion that seems so vitally important she doesn’t realize how uncomfortable she’s making everyone else at the restaurant.
The kid who’s tossing his gum wrapper on the sidewalk and skateboarding in a no-skateboarding-zone? He’s tied up in the all-encompassing complications of puberty, feeling an inescapable need to ignore authority figures, and trying to distract himself from the overwhelming lack of control he feels most of the time.
When other people do things that annoy or offend us, we tend to jump to the conclusion that they do so as a result of some deep, personal flaw. That they are perceiving the act in the same context we are, and are still doing it out of spite or meanness or a desire to hurt us.
And yet, when we do the same — cutting someone off, talking loudly on our phones in public places, disobeying safety regulations — it’s fine. It’s just something we’re doing in that moment, not a reflection of our moral character. It’s situational. Or accidental. Or (insert excuse here).
What’s interesting is that these excuses are generally true, whoever is making them. I don’t think most of us intend to hurt or insult or ruin anyone else’s day; sometimes it just happens, because of how they interpret our actions, or we, theirs.
This is why I propose we start each and every day with the assumption that those around us are not assholes.
By giving everyone the benefit of the doubt by default rather than judging a person outright by a single, probably unintentionally annoying act, we’re giving ourselves permission to be less defensive. Less resentful and spiteful. We can feel less victimized and spend more time looking for the good in each other, rather than the bad.
That way when we do stumble across one of the very few people in the world who might be actively trying to make others’ lives more difficult, we can happily avoid them and keep smiling, knowing the majority are decent human beings worthy of our time and attention.
Update: April 12, 2017
We decide how we respond to outside stimuli. One of the most important moments of my life was when I realized this, and gave myself permission to not have to judge anyone else or feel offended by the things other people do.