When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

"When people show you who they are, believe them." - Maya Angelou

It seems simple, yes? Judge people by their behavior. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Simple.

Right.

In my experience, people will continuously ignore evidence that they personally witness in order to preserve their illusions. Hell, I'm guilty of this myself - learning this lesson on a permanent basis has been one of the great challenges of my life.

Consider these examples:

  • A woman is dating a man who is nice to her, but consistently treats service people like shit. The most likely cause? He's a dick. But the woman won't believe that - she'll make excuses.
  • A man's mother consistently cuts him down and makes him feel small and worthless. The most likely cause? She's a critical harpy. But the man won't believe that - he'll make excuses.
  • A man occasionally gets drunk and smacks his wife around, but is otherwise a "decent guy." The most likely cause? He's a wife-beater. But his wife won't believe that - she'll make excuses.
  • A work-mate never seems able to perform their own work, and is constantly asking their co-workers to do their work, or help them because it's an emergency, or bail them out. The most likely cause? She's incompetent, or lazy, or both. But the co-worker doesn't believe that - he'll make excuses.

Why do we refuse to see the evidence of our eyes? Are we so easily swayed by good intentions that we'll ignore months or years of bad behavior on the simple word of the perpetrator that they're really not like that or that they're really trying to do better?

NEWSFLASH!

These people really are dicks, or critical harpies, or wife-beaters, or lazy incompetents.

If someone treats you unkindly, the most likely reason is because they're unkind.

If someone tells a lie, the most likely reason is because they're a liar.

If someone refuses to do their fair share of the work, the most likely reason is because they're a lazy git.

They're not going to change because they say they are. They'll change when they're damn good and ready, and not before. And they may not change at all.

I have a tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt. I give the benefit of the doubt long past the time when there is no more doubt. Maybe because I want to trust, I want to believe people are trying to do the right thing, I want to believe people are basically good. Seems a bit strange for a cynic like me. But it's true.

I'm reminded of a quote from Batman Begins: "...it's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you."

17 comments:

John the Scientist said...

Amen. My SIL is surrounded by "friends" who take advantage of her kind heart and trusting nature. She makes excuses when they stiff her with the expense of throwing a party for a mutual friend - when she also hosted and did much of the cooking!

She's a decade younger than the wife, so she's Gen Y where we're Gen X. But still, she's old enough to know better. I keep telling her that Gen X has a name for people like her friends, and it starts with "L" and ends with "osers".

Fortunately, my wife got all the common sense in the family (and the lion's share of the academic brains, too - only the youngest SIL comes close) Life ain't fair, but self-destructive behavior makes it even less so.

Cindi in CO said...

What always amazes me, is that people will complain about being taken advantage of in one breath, and then make excuses for the ones taking advantage in the next breath.

I realize that the issue is more complex than this, but hello! Either people suck or they don't. Good people occasionally do sucky things, but if they consistantly suck? Cut them out of your life like a tumour.

Janiece Murphy said...

I really have a tough time with this. I can see where the L-osers are taking advantage of other people, and can certainly see in hindsight where they've taken advantage of me. But in the moment, I can't see it and make the excuses. A work in progress, to be sure.

Cindi in CO said...

As are we all.

Jeri said...

Ulp. My oldest son, who can be charming, is mostly a jerk. He's been that way all his life, a drama queen who thinks the world revolves around him. But we admit this, and although his personality is pretty set at this point, we keep trying to teach him to play well with others. ;)

And - don't get me wrong - we love him. It's just that we do so with our eyes open and our anti-enabling lasers powered on.

Janiece Murphy said...

Jeri, I understand. There's a reason that although I have two children, typically I blog only about my Smart Boy.

But to be fair, I only have permission to blog about my Smart Boy.

In the great "nature versus nuture" debate, I tend more towards "nature," except in extreme cases of "nuture" such as severe abuse, etc.

Michelle K said...

I used to be terrible taking people on their terms and not seeing them for what they were. However, in college I inadvertently became friends with a compulsive liar (didn't know it at the time) and after ending up at odds with many friends based upon what he "shared", we ended up hashing out all the lies. It was amazing. I have no idea how he kept everything straight--or where he came up with the IDEAS for everything.

After nearly losing several friends over his lies, I've been a lot more cautious about taking people at face value.

But it's still hard.

MWT said...

Heh, I've been lied to so many times in so many different ways for so many different reasons, that eventually I learned how to spot them coming. There's a certain subtle vibe of fuzziness to a liar while s/he's lying.

And I wrote an abstract cryptic essay about it on my blog a while back. ;)

Michelle K said...

MWT--

So is this similar to gaydar--only useful?

Janiece Murphy said...

MWT, interesting essay. And you're right - lying is exhausting, and simply not worth it.

Michelle, for me this appears to be a lesson I have to learn again...and again...and again. I tend to be more cautious in my business relationships than I am in my personal ones, but I still end up getting stabbed in the back on a fairly regular basis.

MWT said...

Hey, gaydar can be useful too! Every bit of info is helpful, though not always directly and not necessarily in ways you expect.

But to answer the actual question - yes, sort of like gaydar. ;)

I've recently seen a very large number of sides of the whole conundrum in a set of events in a chat channel. People doing asshole things, people making excuses for it, people getting mad at me for punishing said asshole, me not punishing him early enough because I was trying to be nice, etc. It's never as simple as it sounds, because there is often a whole lot of context surrounding the one given incident - big complicated webs of interrelationships among all the people in a community, all of which have to be taken into account before one starts trying to trim any given bad strands for the good of the whole. The woman might need the date for something that outweighs his dickery to servants, same with the henpecked son or the beaten wife or the coworker with romantic notions.

And it also depends where you want to draw your lines. Nobody is perfect, and everyone has a different place to put the line for how acceptable or unacceptable someone else's flaw(s) might be. Which ties back into what good they give in return.

Becca said...

I have to say Amen. I was married to one of "those" men for 15 years. Too long, but smart enough to figure it out before I lost more than just a part of my heart and emotional make up.

That man is someone I definitely do not see in my own SMART MAN.

Janiece Murphy said...

Becca, at least you learned. I think that's the most important thing, and many people never reach that place.

MWT, it's always a work in progress, don't you think? You can only do the best you can, and hope to keep learning to do better as you move forward.

Michelle K said...

MWT,

1) I totally sympathize--I was message base sysop when we ran our own blogs way back in the 90s (grin) and I had a people who disliked me because of it. (Sucked to be them!)

2) Do you think I can adjust the tuning on my gaydar to pick up liars in addition to the usual? Because my gaydar is frighteningly accurate, but detecting liars would be a lot more useful.

MWT said...

2. Hmmm... I think it's a completely different radar you need to develop. The gayness vibe and the lying vibe aren't really much like each other at all, except insofar as they're about the same level of subtle. Also, lying vibe is really only there during the actual lying - there isn't one that hovers constantly around a person saying "this is a liar" (unless they're in so deep that their grasp on reality is in trouble).

It's also possible to just learn the body language cues, if you're planning to use the liedar in person. Watch for whether they can look you straight in the eye or if they get all shifty, etc.

Jim Wright said...

Hey, interesting thread and good post, Janiece.

Funny, I've always been this way - judging people based on their behavior. And I always base whether I like someone on my first impression of them.

People have told me repeatedly "you can't judge a book by it's cover." Wrong - if the cover says "Mein Kampf" I can guess the rest. This has never failed me. Upon occasion, I've put aside my gut feelings, gritted my teeth and made friends with somebody because everyone else kept telling me "he's a good guy, really, get to know him, you'll like him." I got to know him, he was a back stabbing dick who treated the people who worked for him like utter shit. Never again.

As I've said elsewhere - you are what you do.

Gaydar = marginally useful in certain situations (like not trying to set an in-the-closet gay friend up with the wrong type of date)

Dickdar = always useful. Always.

Janiece Murphy said...

Hee! Jim said "Dickdar." Hee!

Jim, Dickdar would be very useful. Thankfully, mine gets better the older I get, and it was virtually non-existent when I was in my twenties.

"With age, comes wisdom. And wrinkles."