May 10. “Your neighbors make judgments about you based on how your lawn and house look, and people who see you in passing will judge you based on how clean you keep your car. It’s not always fair, but is has been true. Appearances matter, so you make yours a good one.” (Lou Holtz)
Appearances can be quite deceiving, and yet people will make judgments based on something so superficial. All too often those judgments turn out to be terribly flawed, but the lesson seems never to be learned.
About 20 years ago, a neighbor of ours made the mistake of misjudging what she saw. It was summertime, and a beautiful afternoon. I was working long hours on a difficult assignment, even missing dinner with the family a few times in recent weeks. On this day, my wife called me and asked if there was any way I could bring work home for the evening so I could be with the kids for a while. I gathered up some papers and reports I was working on, but a couple of documents on a disk to use on my home computer, and headed home.
We were in the middle of painting the gutters on our house at the time, and my wife wanted to use the early evening to finish the stretch across the front of the house. I told her that I would do the dishes, and mind the children while I worked so that she could finish. As I was cleaning up, but before I dug into the assignment, a friend called and asked to borrow something. He said he’d be right over. I took the large, plastic cup of iced tea I was drinking and headed outside to talk to my wife while she was up the ladder. I sat on a lawn chair the kids had left in the front yard and talked to her until he arrived. After he left, I went back inside to chores, work, and child care. I was up late that night working, but having the family time was a nice boost.
The next day, as my wife was in the front yard, the neighbor lady marched over with a big head of steam. She told my wife that she should not let that no good, so and so of a husband do things like that. My wife shouldn’t be up a ladder painting while I was sitting on a chair watching and drinking beer. She knew other men like that who were lazy, good-for-nothing louts, and on and on.
My wife stopped her after a few seconds and said “first of all, it was iced tea, not beer.” She went on to explain all that I had done inside the house that evening, and the arrival of a friend to borrow something. She told the nosey neighbor about my being up half the night working, and that what she thought she saw was completely inaccurate.
While she was completely incorrect in her assumptions, I don’t think she has ever gotten over that impression of me. I have terrible outdoor allergies, so my wife and children have cut the grass for years. Many of my chores are done indoors, especially in the spring, and so the passerby doesn’t see what is really happening. She has continued to hold that judgment about me, while never knowing about the mountains of laundry I have done, nor the sinks full of dishes.
To some extent, appearances do matter. I have told my children at home, and my teams at work, that we all have to conduct ourselves so that there is not even an appearance of impropriety. Answering the questions that people can have based on their flawed assumptions is both distracting and exhausting.
It is a sad commentary, really on how we as humans interact with each other. It frustrates me, but I am just as guilty of it as anyone. I make snap judgments based on a second or two in traffic, seeing a person walking on the street, a brief interaction in a restaurant, or the first sentence of a news story. I see something posted on social media, and immediately snap to some judgment – good or bad – about the situation or the person. I make the same mistake that neighbor did – I judge without knowing the facts.
When I was a Dale Carnegie instructor, the first principle was “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.” These six, unequivocal words set the tone for much of how Mr. Carnegie suggests that one conduct themselves if they want to Win Friends and Influence People. When we taught the class we would cite examples like these of how criticism can be so flawed, that we can rush to condemn without knowing the facts. We would even have a mini-assignment to have people carry a note card in their pocket and to put a hash mark every time they caught themselves engaging in the “3-Cs”.
The cure, as it turns out, for eliminating the “3Cs” is to seek to understand. The neighbor judged and condemned without understanding the situation. The complaints and condemnations I have about people are almost always without knowing the facts. I am just as flawed as she was that day, and as anyone else who has ever condemned without understanding.
I think it is time for me to start carrying a note card again. I need to check myself on how often I am breaking that first rule of human interaction, so that I can get myself right again.
Lou Holtz tells us that appearances matter. They only matter because most people will never have the time or energy to look past them into our lives. I cannot change that in others, and I cannot always put up the perfect, Stepford appearance to others, so I have to learn to live with the fact that others will judge me. What I can do is change how I look at the people around me. I can move my perspective to the other side of the lens and get back to seeking understanding rather than rushing to judge.