The Benefit of the Doubt

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.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.