understanding other people

Published on April 19, 2020

One of the things I want to invest more time in is understanding other people.

In the past, I have set high expectations for myself, and I have also let those expectations get in the way of how I perceive other people. If I complete my work on-time, then I have expected other people to do the same; if I need extra work, I have expected my boss to be there at the ready with a new assignment.

I have been thinking about this notion over the last few days -- setting expectations of other people -- and I have come to realize it is largely a waste of time.

First, we are all wired differently, which means the expectations I hold for myself will not mirror those that other people have for themselves. As I have discussed in the past, I like to set personal rules for myself, whereas other people may find my rules extreme or restrictive.

My idea of exercising every day is likely very different to yours. I envision myself riding on an exercise bike for 30 minutes, but your idea of exercise could be a long walk, or a high-intensity interval training session. We all have our own preferences.

Because we are all wired differently, I should remember that how others react is completely out of my control. Whereas I may think someone is acting irrationally, they may in fact be acting rationally, according to their experiences of the world.

The panic buying that occurred a few weeks ago -- and, to a lesser extent, that is still going on today -- reminds me of just how differently we are all wired. I, thankfully, did not give into fully panic buying, but that did not stop me from “panic-buying” peanut butter -- well, buying an extra jar -- and chocolate. I was scared, but I wasn’t scared enough to go all-out.

Other people, though, will have had different experiences to me. Some people who panic-bought food may have been through periods of food deprivation. Or they may have had lower incomes, and been concerned that they could not afford food if all the cheap supplies were to sell out quickly.

Second, setting expectations of other people is counterproductive because we cannot control our own circumstances, never mind expect that the circumstances of others will go in their favor.

I have been fortunate enough to have attained good health in this crisis. I have eaten well, slept well, and I have not fallen ill. Members of my family have been healthy, too. However, while my good diet and diligence has played a major part in maintaining my health, I realize that I am in a more fortunate position than others. I live close to stores, and I have a family member who has appointed themselves our so-called “forager”, who gets our supplies.

Other people may not have this. Some people will have families to take care of, which means they have to worry more about a wide range of things of which I am not aware. Some people may know people affected by our current health crisis directly, and will be coping with a high degree of uncertainty.

What brought this all home was that, earlier this week, I was trying to contact someone, and they fell silent. The subject matter was somewhat important -- or, at least it seemed like it at the time -- and I was eager to hear a response from the person. So, I followed up, then I followed up again. It was not until days later that I heard back from the person, informing me they had been taking some personal time.

My having expectations of this person was a mental barrier for me. I became so preoccupied by my expectations that I allowed myself to forget the two factors I have just mentioned: we are all wired differently, and we are all subject to our own circumstances.

Unfortunately, a second friend with whom I wanted to chat had also been affected by new and uncertain circumstances -- they had been left to take care of their child while a member of their family was ill. I cannot even begin to imagine what they are going through, but I hadn’t even considered it at first -- all I was thinking about was when this person was going to respond to me.

My goal, then, should not be to expect other people to do certain things, even if certain things are technically their responsibility (like assigning work). I should never assume that other people will be there for me like they were today. I should not expect that, tomorrow, my friends will be in the same headspace as they were today.

I should focus my attention on getting to know other people as much as I possibly can. While there is no hope that I will be able to learn how someone is wired -- I am still a student of myself, and learning how I work -- I can take more time to learn about how other people see the world. This, in turn, will allow me to get a firmer insight into how my friends, co-workers, and others live their lives.

Especially in times of crisis, nothing can be said to be certain. It’s during these times that it is more important than ever to take a step back, and to consider just how different we all are. Someone may be late in responding to a message; someone may need to take a few days away (like I have done before). That’s fine. The best I can do to help others is to ignore expectations, never assume, and get to know them better so I can provide more support.

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