Facing Social Judgement: It’s Only Twenty Percent You

It is human nature to care what people think about you. How are you supposed to know what you are and who you are to others? Not to mention that when you are brought into this world you are utterly dependent on the care of others who, for some reason, choose to protect and nurture you. You also inhabit a poor vantage point to gauge how others perceive you. Now advance our society to the digital age and things get very confusing about what people think about you and what to take seriously. Social anxiety and preoccupation appears to be rampant under these conditions.

There are a lot of things that happen between two people, not to mention what happens in group dynamics. We are ultimately social creatures that both crave social interaction and fear negative social judgment. We may not be chased by lions anymore, but social judgment can feel like a threat to our existence. When we run into conflict, you may hear feedback such as “try not to take it personally.” But this is easier said than done, of course. If a person is coming at you with criticism or judgement, how can you not pay attention and react to this? Here is a perspective to keep in mind when you find yourself giving someone else’s criticism (real or imagined) too much weight.

Since we are social primates, we have ingrained emotional reactions to situations and people. Whether we like it or not, it is natural to feel jealous of peers who we perceive to be doing better than us or to feel sibling rivalry. We tend to distrust outsiders at first. We befriend those who can give us opportunity or who can protect us. Most of us like people who are vulnerable with us. And there is certainly truth in the statement “haters gonna hate.” If you are perceived to be happy when another is miserable, that person will tend to resent your happiness.

In a similar vein, a recent study showed that female capuchin monkeys will protest if their peer is not being treated fairly at their own expense, which suggests that social primates (including humans) have a tendency to react strongly to perceived unfairness.

The 80/20 rule

Outside of these primate dynamics, inevitably you will run into people who just have a problem with you, people who react critically to you, or people who will make a seemingly offhand judgement about you that is not consistent with how you see yourself. Like Aristotle once said: “to avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” A good rule of thumb to employ in the face of social judgement is the 80/20 rule.

Eighty percent of the criticism you experience coming at you belongs to the person doing the criticizing and twenty percent of that is what you should examine. Maybe there is a grain of truth to the criticism, especially if there is a repeat theme in your feedback. Maybe you were being ignorant, rude, or inappropriate in that moment. But think about it this way: don’t we all have a friend, colleague, teammate, or group member who is awkward and rough around the edges who we excuse for their behavior? Isn’t it a choice to be kind versus to call out someone’s flaws? What does it gain someone to voice unsolicited criticism (assuming no one is being harmed)? If you break down the situation later, which many people will privately, it may become clear that the criticizer has another process going on entirely that is landing on you at the moment.

For example, This American Life (545) recently featured a story about Lindy West, a blogger who routinely receives bullying comments from trolls. Despite the conventional wisdom not to feed the trolls, she ends up calling out one of her trolls who crossed a line, taking it very personally. A cathartic dialogue ensues after the troll outs himself and apologizes. What she learns is that the reason he targeted her was due to his suppressed misogyny and her perceived confidence and happiness. What is the take home from this story? You can be doing nothing wrong and still be on the receiving end of this type of criticism/hate (especially in an anonymous online arena). A secondary point is that perhaps if you express vulnerability to the criticism, the trolls/critics can become humans again (if it’s worth it to you).

In a similar story, tech editor Sam Biddle discusses his regret at his role in the public shaming of PR executive Justine Sacco for a distasteful racial tweet. He accepts her invitation to dinner six months after her fall from grace which results in his sincere apology and his feelings of regret. Again, the critic becomes human again after he is engaged in a real way by the object of his criticism. Another aspect of this shaming is the silver lining of social judgement. Tragically, she lost her job, lost her reputation, and was unable to date. Yet a little over a year later she landed on her feet and ended up as a sympathetic story in the New York Times with her former critic painting her in a positive light. Perhaps this demonstrates the ephemeral nature of social judgement. Even if you are judged and judged harshly in the moment, people generally have a short attention span. People will accept a different version of you when the outrage dies down (quicker than you think) and when you venture to put another version of yourself forward. How many times have we had a bad first impression of someone only to change our mind later when we get to know them? We are generally not that committed to social judgements about a person, especially when that person becomes more real to us.

Maybe the best reason not to fear social judgement is that, for the most part, people are not spending time thinking about you. There may be a momentary thought, but people are mostly thinking about themselves and being their own harshest critic. Even when a judgement is expressed, it is still more about the critic himself as in the case of Lindy West. And even if it is the worst-case-scenario shaming you can still recover and make a comeback like Justine Sacco. And perhaps the most effective weapon to combat social judgement is to just be real and authentic. Show your once and future critics that you bleed just like them, which will make them realize that you are not an object to be projected upon without consequence.

Despite the complexity introduced by online anonymity and social media, we are still social primates underneath it all. We still have the unique and redeeming ability to feel hurt, regret, empathy, and fairness within our communities online and in real life. So, the next time you catch a judgement coming your way take it as a glimpse into someone’s mind or use it as data about the dynamics of the situation. And then give the twenty percent that is about you about twenty percent of your attention later.