The Other Side of the Equation

“I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”
– Bob Dylan

The old adage that you should walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you criticize them is true, but not for the reasons most people assume. I think most people miss the real wisdom contained here.

(Fun aside: my favorite follow-up to that bit of folk wisdom is “…because then when you criticize them, you’ll already be a mile away and you’ll have their shoes.”)

Most people seem to interpret the saying as meaning that you should take the time to understand people as individuals before you criticize them. However, I don’t think that’s actually true. I think you should mostly just not criticize people unless the criticism is warranted because it’s helpful, necessary, true and kind. If it’s not those things, keep your mouth shut. If it is those things, then someone’s individual circumstances have already been taken into account – literally every person on Earth has unique circumstances, so “having unique circumstances” can hardly be considered a prerequisite for being deserving of careful consideration. Everyone deserves kindness, even if you don’t know a thing about them.

Instead, you should “walk a mile” in their position relative to you.

Go to any restaurant and observe for a while, and you know what you’ll soon discover? You can tell which customers have ever worked in food service, and which haven’t. Same with a busy retail location. The people who are kinder (or at least more understanding) aren’t behaving better because they know anything about that specific server or cashier. They’re behaving better because they know what it’s like to be on the other side of that equation.

Former hiring managers make great job candidates, and people recently on the job hunt make better hiring managers. People who have been telemarketers are kinder to honest people just trying to make a living over the phone – and perhaps meaner to scam artists. In both cases, they understand the equation and what goes into both sides of it.

Any time you enter into an interaction where you haven’t been on the other side, tread lightly. You’re in unfamiliar territory. If you care about other people, you’ll be kinder than your default level, because your default level is probably too low. And even if you’re a cold-hearted misanthrope, you should still be wary. If you’ve never been on the other side, you’re at a disadvantage. In either case, it behooves you to seek understanding.

Don’t be a drag.

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