In Defense of the Z-Axis
How thinking about each other in 2-D hurts us
Horatio initially strikes you as either an (A) pompous douchebag or (B) enigmatic artist. After all, his name is Horatio. Unfortunately for him, you go with (A) because he’s wearing a tucked in T-shirt, dad jeans, and makes subpar eye contact, reminding you of the last dude you met like him—a soft-spoken hipster who made fun of Starbucks unaware that you, in fact, drink Starbucks religiously because frappuccinos are amazing.
The next five minutes are crucial for Horatio, if he’d like to be friends. He needs to mention that he does woodworking for a living (a fairly unpretentious occupation), off-handedly bash your least favorite politician (oh thank God), and talk about his uncertainty around camping for the first time (cool, camping is something I can talk about). If he tops it off by cracking open a Budweiser (a very unpretentious drink), he’s in the clear.
What Horatio shouldn’t do is talk about his upcoming vacation to France (rich, stuck up dude for sure), get distracted when his friend walks in the room (guess I wasn’t interesting enough, huh?), or mention that his woodworking isn’t building tables, but carving figurines (I knew he was prissy).
Regardless of what Horatio does, he’s on his way towards a slice of real estate somewhere in your mental Do I Like You? chart. His destination depends on how you answer two questions:
- Is this person like me?
- Do I want to be like this person?
The is this person like me? spectrum is simple: the more “me” they are, the more you like ’em. This covers everything from your preference for government-funded healthcare to your militant revulsion to Vineyard Vines and bowties. The best-case scenario is a clone of you; the worst-case is a hybrid of an animal abuser, the smelly kid from 7th grade, and your least favorite politician. You’re looking for people who align with you in demeanor, dress, religion, politics, lifestyle, and general worldview.
Of course, there are some people whose differences you appreciate, thus the do i want to like be this person? axis. It’s not that you want to be exactly like this person, but you admire him because he’s good at stuff you suck at but still value — being famous, helping others, writing code, cooking dinner, reading people, staying grateful—it could be anything.
If Horatio scores high on each axis, you like him. If he scores low, you don’t. If he scores really low, you’ll actively trash talk him to your friends. Sucks to suck, Horatio.Of course, you’re not literally charting this dude out on a graph, but it’s a good representation of your internal dialogue.
Are people really that simple, though? Isn’t it sort of wrong to reduce another person to just two dimensions? Ethics aside, humans are literally 3-D, so shouldn’t we think about each other with more nuance than a 2-D mental model anyways? In fact, a person’s personality is usually more like an 87-D, multi-faceted, confusing and dynamic series of contradictory data points. It seems like considering a third variable would be more effective, at the very least.
Introducing the Z-axis
I propose that we add a third axis to our Do I Like You? charts: do I understand this person?.
This axis is unlike the others in a few ways. First, it’s far more time-consuming to discern. Second, it’s the only one you can control. Most interestingly, it affects how you fill out the other two.
The more you understand Horatio, the more you uncover admirable traits, relatable fears, or common interests that weren’t initially obvious—highlighting new ways that Horatio is like you or you want to be like Horatio (the x and y-axes).
Even if you don’t find any common ground—you don’t approve of his lifestyle, his values, or his perspective—but you at least understand him, he’ll still be more likable.
We’ve all experienced this before, though perhaps without knowing it. There’s that one friend who you disliked until you spent an alternative spring break together and bonded. Or, perhaps you have a sexist, socially awkward, or generally embarrassing family member that you’d probably avoid if you hadn’t been forced into hanging out for the last few decades. While you may always clash, you still love them because you know them.
Similarly, a person’s political views may be wrong, his style may be terrible, and you may not admire him in any way. Yet the more you take the time to fully understand a person, the more you’ll like him and the more gracious you’ll be. And we could all use a little bit of grace.
So here’s what I’m saying put more bluntly.
I’m frustrated with liberal, feminist, gay, hipster, agnostic, black, urban, millennial, third-wave-coffee-drinking, get-married-at-35 people. I’m also frustrated with conservative, straight, preppy, Baptist, white, suburban, Baby Boomer, Starbucks-drinking, get-married-at-22 people. I’m frustrated with you and I for charting humans on binary, 2-D graphs and lazily rejecting them. We’ve become more interested in being right than in understanding others and we’re increasingly divided as a result.
We flippantly dismiss others with snide comments, clever one-liners and facebook comments as if we’re making a difference by joining an intellectual circle jerk or waging a destructive comment war when we’re actually alienating everyone who would benefit from our perspective, values, and experiences.
I’m guilty myself, and not in a token we-can-all-grow-a-little-bit kind of way.
As an overzealous Christian in high school, I assumed that atheists were a scary threat that should be dismissed with a few trite comebacks (wrong). Even today, I often tense up around preppy “bros”, instinctively taking a defensive mental posture rather than taking steps to get to know them. I haven’t entered many comment wars, but I’ve certainly backslapped my friends at how right we are about life while avoiding anyone who disagrees.
Whatever it is that alienates you from another person, your position may be correct — this is not a critique of anyone’s position on any issue — but flippantly judging them is not. It’s dehumanizing. It’s lazy. It’s ineffective. Whether it’s as trivial as Taylor Swift’s new album, as niche as the best type of coffee, or as serious as centuries of racial tension, we need more questions and consequently more understanding. Understanding always produces more compassion, empathy, grace, and kindness. We could all use some of that.
So, when you meet Horatio, don’t revert back to a 2-D judgment call. Have the patience to suspend judgment and get to know him before filling in your Do I Like You? chart. Integrating a Z-axis is more difficult, but it’s a tangible step towards making the world a kinder, more compassionate place. If we commit to thinking about others in 3-D, rather than 2-D, I think we’ll find that there truly is more that common ground than we think. Seriously. Try it.