The Benefit of the Doubt

April 11, 2012 — 28 Comments

Some weirdo says something to you in the grocery store and you smile and nod your head, “Yup!” Just to avoid a scene right? You have a meeting with a sales rep and indulge the friendly but pointless chitchat even though you hate it. But a friend mispronounces a word and we leap to correct them. Your girlfriend tells a boring story and you’ve got to say something about it, you’ve got to get short with her. What kind of bullshit is this? We give the benefit of courtesy to everybody but the people who earned it.

Think of how much patience we have for total strangers and acquaintances. But what a short fuse we have for the actual people in our life. In the course of our everyday lives, our priorities are so very backwards. We do our best to impress people we’ll never see again and take for granted people we see all the time. We’re respectful in our business lives, casual and careless in our personal. We punish closeness with criticism, reward unfamiliarity with politeness.

On some days, deep down, I think we’d rather just be an asshole to everyone. But we can’t, so on those days we take it out all the harder on the people we can. When kids are misbehaving, it’s the one within reach that the parent slaps. Just because you can call someone out (or hold them accountable) doesn’t mean you should. The fact that you can certainly shouldn’t count against the person. As though being your friend or co-worker costs them your patience.

Not that I’m saying to flip the ratio and be less tolerant to people outside your circle than those inside it. Instead, see if you can give everyone the graciousness of meeting them fresh each time. Ask yourself: how would I treat this person if we weren’t so familiar? If it’s more generously, do that. Don’t use history against people, don’t slap just because you can. Sure, be friendly to everyone but bend over backwardsbecause they’ve earned itfor the people who put up with your shit on a daily basis.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

28 responses to The Benefit of the Doubt

  1. Ahh….Counter-intuition saves the world. Once again. Could it not be that it’s perfectly natural for one’s contempt to increase upon familiar matters?

  2. This post has literally slapped me on the face waking me up. It’s one of those things that have always lurking in the back of my mind but not really conceptualized. Thanks for this one.

  3. We all sometimes treat people we’re close to(friend, boy/girlfriend, family) with more contempt than others we aren’t so close to. Perhaps it is because it seems more convenient for us to project our own frustrations on them because they’re so close. Interesting, and troubling, how at times we empathize more with strangers without being conscious of it. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, for example, is key to understanding where these types of reactions come from and how they come about, which are things we’re not totally aware of and should try our best to amend.

  4. “Touché!!” right on the spot. Thanks for the great post!

  5. This one hits close to home…

  6. But then again, are we patient and polite with strangers’ follies because it’s usually the first time we’ve been subject to it, and so it’s easy (and logical) to give them the benefit of the doubt?

    And are we impatient and critical with the close ones because we’ve seen the same annoying thing over and over?

    So then maybe we should focus on only the first time someone does something stupid/annoying (since this can apply to both strangers and close folks).

    Are we really more critical with people we’re close to, compared to strangers, even the first time they piss us off?
    I’m not entirely sure. Maybe a little bit. But not as much as one would imagine without making the above distinction.

    • Or maybe its only we see it as an “annoying thing” in close ones because we’ve grown entitled and more demanding. That is the point I’m making here. Our convention (and habits) hold different people to different standards. Strangers to one, friends/family/connections to others. Oddly, the former–at least for superficial interaction–grants more leeway than the latter. That’s backwards and we should strive for it not to be.

      • I find this to be true to an unfortunate extent in my own life.

        Looking at it critically, I think it has something to do with the fact that giving public-life acquaintances leeway allows most of my life to run more smoothly. I spend most of my time in public spaces (as opposed to private ones; in my home, or with family/loved one), and I believe that I have little control over how those public spaces operate, or how the people I interact with in them behave.

        In those public spaces, I take the attitude Mike Dodd mentioned here in another comment thread ( “Pretend that everyone else is hemmed in by predetermination but that you, and you alone, have free will.”

        In my view, it’s this attitude which allows for a sort of superficial freedom of movement within a world of objects – I expect them to do and be just what I observe them to do and be.

        On the other hand, in my private-life, I struggle to be genuinely considerate of those close to me. I find that it’s much more difficult to be accepting of a loved one’s faults when we feel that they can be changed – that they have the ability to be different than they are.

  7. My advice is to treat every interaction like you are on a first date. Even if it’s hard to maintain that facade for a long time, just focus on that one interaction at a time, until the facade gets etched permanently. I know I won’t ever be 100% all the time, that’s tiring shit. But that’s no excuse to be stagnant and accept the alternative.

  8. I don’t think it’s a backwards intuition at all. I’m not going to bother correcting a random stranger at the grocery store or that guy on the metro who plays his music too loud. But if my close friend is doing the same thing, of course I’ll say something to him.

    And that’s because I care more about my close friend than I do a random stranger, not the opposite. This is not being discourteous or intolerant. It’s what being a good friend is. I would hope if I’m doing something irritating or telling a boring story, my friend points it out and tells me.

    I think the point your making though is something different and concerns the frustrations we sometimes take out on those close to us. But criticism can be a very valuable thing from friends and family; because of them and the things they point out in me sometimes, I’m often less of an inadvertent asshole in every day life.

  9. Unrelated but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single woman on here. Wonder why that is.

    • Because anecdotal observations are notoriously unreliable.

      • So you’re saying you do? Seems people commenting on your posts are always majority male.
        That doesn’t mean there aren’t women lurking here….even as I have been.

        • There’s plenty of women commenters. That said, there’s certainly a difference in reading habits by gender when it comes to my material. I see more emails from female readers than comments, and definitely more lurkers.

          • There is something very “male” about your writing. Can’t put my finger on what exactly but I do think that even if you’d chosen to remain anonymous I’d still somehow know you were a man by your style.

            Then again, that doesn’t mean the writing is gender limited because it does deal with some very broad human themes. Issues we all encounter as we try make our way in this world without compromising our own identities.

            Clearly, I relate to it enough as a woman to keep checking back every so often.

            I think I see some of my own thinking reflected here but maybe that’s atypical. Could be because we have common influences. Ive read most of Robert Greene’s books, as well as some of the Stoic philosophers you seem to rely on. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

          • On a subjective, anecdotal, and related note, the most interesting blogs by people who have commented here seem to be written by women.

            I wish more of these lurkers would post their comments.

          • X, you have the intuition the writing is from a male because its pseudo-philosophy with very little analysis desperately attempting to show some kind of ego. The kid’s only 24 or so.

            Jus’ sayin’.

          • I wonder if perhaps my male perspective could come from the fact that I am a male.

          • It’s the type of post. Females think this is more a male issue when it’s probably the same.

  10. Holy cow, as a previous commenter mentioned, this was a complete (and welcome) slap in the face for me…it’s actually something I preach to my kids, but it’s embarrassing that it never hit me that I’m not following my own advice.

    Thank you so much…

  11. Thanks for your thoughts. “Graciousness”. It’s root is “grace”. A favor supplied even when undeserved. And we all need it–and need to give it.

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