Although I recently posted about giving people the benefit of the doubt, I admit that this practice doesn’t always work.
Most importantly, we should never explain away or excuse bigotry, violence, or abuse.
But even in more simple everyday ways, we need – when giving the benefit of the doubt – to make sure we are being generous to the right people.
Here’s a story a friend told me:
She and her husband were driving home from dinner. He was behind the wheel. They came to a four-way stop. Another car on their left got to the stop several seconds after they did. Just as her husband stepped on the gas to go, the other car jumped into the intersection and sped off, causing my friend’s husband to hit the brake hard in order to stop in time.
“Jesus H. Christ,” the husband yelled. “What an asshole!”
And my friend, trying to calm him down, said, “Maybe he just didn’t see us.”
And later, telling me this story, my friend said to me, “That was such a stupid thing for me to say.”
And I understood right away what she meant.
Why not be on your husband’s side? What would it have cost her to be on his side?
If, when he had said, “What an asshole!” – she had said:
“I KNOW! It was YOUR turn!”
Because what she really said didn’t make a single difference to the asshole driver – and it didn’t calm her husband down any either.
Believe me, I know.
I do it.
All the time.
I constantly tell people to think the best of others. I make excuses for people I do not know. And while thinking the best of others is the right thing for me to do, telling others to do so is not necessarily thinking the best of the people I am lecturing.
For as much I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, the people I love don’t always need a sermon on giving people the benefit of the doubt when they are upset. Sometimes they just want to be heard.
And have someone on their side.
So here is some advice – that you may find inconsistent with my earlier advice on giving people the benefit of the doubt. But I don’t think it is. I think maybe it’s that just a matter of choosing which person to give the benefit of the doubt to.
When you are not dealing with hatred or abuse, and when it won’t make a difference in any material way – BE ON THE SIDE OF THE PERSON YOU LOVE.
Be on the side of the person you know, even if it’s not quite love.
My boss once complained to me that the new HR directive added a ton of paperwork to her already busy day. I personally thought that the new documentation was long overdue, and I nicely said so. But it didn’t go over well with my boss. She was still angry and now she was angry with me too. What I see today is that it would not have betrayed my core values in any significant way to say, “I KNOW! What a lot of extra work this is for you!”
I could have been on her side.
I know someone who often complains about a close relative. She’s hurt because the relative never includes her in his plans. In fact, he goes out of his way to keep his activities a secret so that he doesn’t have to include her. Or at least, that’s how my friend feels. I used to say, “I don’t think he meant to exclude you. He just probably didn’t think you would be interested,” or some such ‘benefit of the doubt’ platitude. Yes, I am contradicting myself. Yes, I was practicing my philosophy, but I may have (I know I was) giving the benefit of the doubt to the wrong party. But I am learning. It happened again recently, and I said, “That’s terrible. He should be nicer to you!”
I was on her side.
I didn’t have to fix anything. I didn’t have to make it better. I just had to be on her side.
And I know that we should all teach kids to be nice. And to share. I believe there are so many moments when we can teach kids to be generous. But sometimes we can let up a little. Not long ago, I heard a kid crying to his mother that his brother took the last cookie that he wanted for himself. And I expected the mom to say something about being generous and letting his little brother have that cookie, and that would have been quite nice, but what she said was, “Well that sucks! Let me give you a hug!”
And she was right.
She was on his side.
So here is what I am trying to say:
The next time someone you love or just someone you know is bitching about something that is not an affront to humankind, instead of saying “Consider the other guy’s point of view” – or – “Oh, that’s not so bad” – both of which are the equivalent of saying “Calm down!” (and we know how well THAT works) – try saying this instead:
Give the benefit of the doubt to the person in front of you.
Choose a side.