No Matter What You Do, People Will Judge You


A man and his wife were traveling with their donkey.
On the first day, they passed through a town, both riding on his back. They heard people whispering: “What a mean couple, putting all that weight on the donkey.”
On the second day, they passed through another town, the man on the donkey, the wife walking beside. They heard people whispering: “What a cruel man, forcing his wife to walk while he rides on the donkey.”
On the third day, they passed through another town, the man walking, the wife on the donkey. They heard people whispering: “What a careless man, letting his wife ride alone on the donkey.”
On the fourth day, they passed through another town, both walking beside the donkey. They heard people whispering: “What a stupid couple, why do they walk if they could ride on the donkey?”

I love this story because it explains one of society’s biggest problems in a nutshell: no matter what you do, people will judge you.

Sometimes, they’ll think highly of you and sometimes, they’ll think you’re stupid. But they’ll always think something. Even if they don’t verbalize it.

That’s not news — we’ve always been subjected to the opinions of our local community — but those communities are getting bigger and bigger.

As we showcase our actions and opinions online, we invite an ever-growing group of people to judge us, even if they’re mere friends of friends or just casual acquaintances. That’s a problem, because while we still have the same core group of say 10–20 friends in real life, we’ve now dipped our opinion toe into a much larger pool of sharks, and they’re just waiting for a drop of blood.

When you ride your donkey through the village, that’s 10, 20, maybe 50 people whose laughter you have to deal with. It’s easy to get over that with a supportive family or a small group of friends. But when you ride your donkey through Twitter, you might attract the unblinking stares — and sometimes outright hate — of thousands. And that’s much harder to stomach.

There are many points to be made here, like thinking about what you share with who and when, or being careful not to become judgmental in your own interactions online, but what’s even more interesting is asking: Why are these judgments the way they are? And why do they miss the point so much?

One part of the answer, though not all of it, is that ride-by judgments like these are generalizing in nature when much of our behavior is contextual.

Maybe one day, the man let his wife ride alone because he needed to stretch his legs. Maybe, they were both tired on the next. Unlike people’s perspective when they pass by, their view of the donkey isn’t fixed. The donkey’s position in their lives isn’t limited to a one-time event, and so they don’t have to care what to think of the donkey on any given day.

This line of thinking is very much open to the onlookers, it’s just harder to choose. It’s much easier and more convenient to go with the generalizing assumption: the couple must always ride the donkey this way because, well, that’s what they’re doing right now.

In science, this is called the fundamental attribution error. We’re ascribing people’s behavior to their identity when it’s actually a matter of circumstance.

This is to be expected from a mental operating system that runs mostly on heuristics and, as long as we can deflect such baseless assessments, not too much of an issue. But when they pile up in quantity and diversity, for example from online interactions over time, the judgment tables start to turn — on us.

Imagine all towns the couple rode through were like the first: people call them mean again and again. Don’t you think after four days, they’d at last consider the crowd being right? “What if we are stupid? What if we’re treating our donkey all wrong?”

This is only the beginning of a slippery slope we’ve all slid down before, but it ends with a perfectly fine couple carrying their donkey on their hands. Finally, they confirm what the whole town “knew” all along: they’re two nutcases, hopeless beyond saving. All because they tried to escape people’s judgments, until they had nowhere to go but madness.

No matter what you do, people will judge you. But how much you allow those judgments to invade your self-image? That’s up to you. It’s not an easy fight to keep up, to keep being nice to ourselves, but it’s surely one worth fighting.

Life is more than a ride on a donkey. But even if it wasn’t, it’d be your ride and yours alone. So keep your head high when you enter the village. And don’t let their whispers throw you out of the saddle.