Tag Archives: people

Judging Strangers

Everything I do depends on other members of our species… And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species.
-the inspiring Steve Jobs


I can be pretty judgmental. I believe I also change my mind as I get new information but I don’t know how true that is. In any case, after reading Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, I thought Jobs was an awesome visionary, a self-made hero who transformed, revolutionized and created several unique industries.

Isaacson’s book made me tear up- the drama of Jobs’ creative dreams was so inspiring to an enterprising young person like myself, plus he’s an orphan who grew up to enslave a meek, unambitious, gentle giant genius and force tons of people smarter than him to work harder and smarter than they would’ve asked of themselves. And he wore the same clothes all the time like a dorky superhero. What a courageous star!

Then I read Jobs’ favorite book, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Apparently Steve Jobs read this book every single year. He made it the first iBook. Has anyone else read this?

My reaction to this book was, “I love Steve Jobs but I have no idea what this yogi is talking about. Am I insane?”

Midway through this book I concluded I had no idea what this yogi was talking about and Steve Jobs was insane.

I actually liked the book and found its preachings of spirituality over materialism inspiring. There were interesting parts about Bose’s plant and radio discoveries that I hadn’t known about (I used to be a Tesla fan (before it was cool!) but now I think Bose might be even cooler, plus I’m nicer to my plants and even my objects (Guys, it’s science. Seriously)) (Also I am really good at yoga, probably a prodigy). But most of the “autobiography” didn’t make any sense. Are we supposed to believe that yogis can levitate or are we supposed to view this whole book as some kind of metaphor? I got the impression it was NOT supposed to be read as fiction- the yogi seemed to believe all this stuff. Did he have the power to bend reality, or was he hallucinating, or was he deliberately lying, or was this some kind of meta art, or is none of it meant to be taken literally?

I still love Steve Jobs. What these books made me realize is how a relatively small new piece of information can really change one’s judgment of a stranger, and how weird that is relative to the slack I give to people I actually know, and the slack I wish for them to bestow me in return.

My best friends could (and do) say anything- no matter how offensive- and I still don’t think they’re bigots because it’s just one drop in the ocean of information we have on one another. In contrast if a total stranger said something evil, I’d probably just never talk to them again because now the only thing I know about them is that they say weird things. Even though I know the likelihood of someone being evil is low, when 100% of my information about someone is negative, maybe I can be justified in judging them for it.

The thing that happened with my judgment of Jobs is not like the complete stranger scenario because I knew a lot about Jobs- I’d read 700+ pages of writing about him, and yet this single new piece of information about this yogi book easily changed the way I viewed him. Maybe it’s because everything I know about Jobs is second hand, so this new piece of information is given the same weight as “founded Apple”- they’re both random facts that took me 30 seconds to learn and my brain doesn’t realize that “favorite book: Autobiography of a Yogi” maybe shouldn’t have the same weight as “founded the most valuable company ever and ran it for decades.”

People are complicated and have lots of inconsistencies because we’re all crazy. Public figures and strangers are not people the way people who we actually know are people. No matter how much you know about a stranger, you still don’t think of them as a real person. Our brains naturally assign stereotypes to people- we map stuff onto other stuff and when we don’t know someone, we make assumptions about them. Maybe a 30 second sound bite can undo 30 years of patriotism and civil service and professional excellence and loving parenthood because the time it took us to process the soundbite is the same as the amount of time it took us to learn they were war heroes or human rights advocates or whatever. We only know our own experiences so when we don’t have personal experience with someone, our judgment can be totally off.

People can be really mean to each other on the internet. The only Internet places I’ve participated in public discourse are Quora, Hacker News, and this blog, all places populated by nerds who are probably more intelligent and educated than 90% of humans. But many responses are either “This person agrees with me, except more so. This person is a genius” or “This person disagrees with me and is an idiot who’s also a jerk and probably hates me and begrudges my happiness and is trying to steal my freedom by annoying me with his crazy comments.”

I think in general people are actually really nice to me on the internet because I don’t hide my identity as a lovable Chinese girl. But whenever I do something anonymously, I see what many Internet men have to deal with. People will completely misread whatever you were saying! They assume you’re a stupid, disagreeable, male jerk and accuse you of all manner of nonsense. For a time this was very annoying because how could someone be so totally wrong! In response I’d either make some joke, present some data that proved their idiocy, or ignore them.

But now whenever I feel the urge to accuse the commenter of being a mean, illiterate troll and basically becoming a troll myself, I now do this trick of pretending the commenter is a particular friend of mine who disagrees with me about everything. I’m not going to say who this person is, but s/he knows who s/he is. And I find I’m way nicer to everyone on the internet when I do this because now my map of “disagreeable person” is no longer “anonymous jerk” but “annoyingly argumentative friend who doesn’t read the correct news sources but is still cool.” I can still get annoyed when a friend obstinately disagrees with me but I’m more open to changing my mind and don’t assume they’re being intentionally stupid or difficult.

Maybe I’ll also try this trick with public figures. Because most public figures are generally not that stupid or evil. They’re strangers, and strangers are not like real people.