A couple of hours ago I stood waiting to get off a flight, trapped in the no mans land of disembarking the plane, waiting impatiently for the “Cabin crew prepare doors for arrival”. I looked out at the sea of faces and wondered who all these people were. Perhaps a default position of being a psychologist – I look and wonder what’s that person’s story? Where did they grow up, what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, do they have a family, what are they passionate about, what do they do every day, do they like what they do? It always amazes me to see how many people there are in any given space and time, each with their own unique pattern.
Everyone has their own story, each one of us has experienced different things and lived life in a unique and personal way. Even though there are 7.4 billion people on the planet, by nature of our genes and individual interactions, the neuronal pathways in our brains – only you are you and only I am me.
Everyone deserves respect. We know this – I mean we’re all good people with good intentions at the end of the day, right? But we can also easily forget. Caught up in our own world of busyness, of getting on to the next thing – our more primitive brain takes over and sees the faces around us as strangers and indicative of this word’s meaning as ‘strange’. (This incidentally is a natural human response that makes me feel defensive, annoyed, protective).
On my way to Zambia, in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport I went to the bathroom. I walked past the toilet attendant and thought about how it must feel to be in that room with no windows all day: flushing loos, cleaning seats, seeing people rush in and out again on their exciting adventures. And I wondered how that lady got there, what was her life story, did she even have a choice of what job she did or was it anything that would pay enough to live? Did she ever have opportunities, prospects? How did she see the world? On my fleeting trip in and out of the bathroom all I could offer was a big smile, no time to sit and ask her about who she was and how she got there.
While we are all human and unique, we also by nature of our biology and default all too quickly forget. So, what should we do with these people all around us – in a world crowded with faces?
Try not to stereotype
I say try, because our brain works quickly to categorise and simplify as a survival mechanism still with us from our ancient ancestors. Friend or foe, like me or not like me, opportunity or threat. We have to consciously make the decision not to let the more basic and primitive areas of our brain take over. While it may be beneficial to use our survival instincts when we’re walking home alone in the dead of night that only makes up a small fraction of time in our daily lives.
Try not to make assumptions
Once we’ve got past the point of stereotyping, the next rabbit hole our brain takes us down is stereotyping. We speak to someone at a party and find out that they’re a banker, our assumption could be that they are money and status driven and that could be the lens we then see everything they say through. For example they talk about when they were in Africa and we assume it was on some luxury safari. In actual fact it was as a volunteer helping children orphaned as a result of AIDS, and why? Because they care deeply about giving back. Even as a psychologist trained to step back from these assumptions, I can be as guilty as the next person once I’m out of work mode.
Ask questions and really really listen.
Try (again I say try because it’s not the way your brain will lead you) to remain completely open-minded, to listen with intent, to understand not to judge or think about what you are going to say next, listen to hear what that person has experienced, what they believe in, what nuances of their experience and perception makes them as unique as you and I.
What’s your experience of jumping to the wrong conclusion or being surprised by someone’s story? What have you learnt about people as you’ve gone through life? Do you have any tips on how to stop yourself from judging too quickly? I’d love to know because I really do think we can all learn from one another.
Explore your own story using:
Defining You gives unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.