Gnomicon 212

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  212
Monday 10 December 2012
Read gnomica 1-200 here!

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 People’s behavior makes sense if you think about it
in terms of their goals, needs, and motives.
Thomas Mann (6 Jun 1875 – 12 Aug 1955)

One of the harder things to confront is having to deal with the pervasive reality that people do things that may well make perfect sense to them but absolutely no sense to you.  This is as true of the serious as of the frivolous, and it is as true of people you know as of people who are complete strangers – and even, at times, of yourself.

You might argue that in the latter case you should not be surprised for surely you know and understand your own “goals, needs, and motives”.  Ah, if it were only so …  After all, a good century of psychologizing and psychoanalyzing, of plumbing the ultimate etiology of behavior has taught us that our own “goals, needs, and motives” are murky to us, obscure, opaque.  Do we always understand in any meaningful sense of that word the behavioral repertoires that, for better or worse, we have adopted in dealing both with the world of others out there and with the world of self within.

Given how resistant to making sense the conduct of even those closest to us sometimes can be, is it any wonder that “people’s behavior” often baffles us?

Some time ago I jotted down a few thoughts about why I tip the way I tip.  It has to do with not judging your pecuniary generosity on the basis of that one – perhaps only one, ever – interaction with a waiter or waitress but, if the service isn’t the best, adopting a certain sympathetic generosity towards the possibility that she may just be having a very bad day, worrying about a sick child with a baby sitter, thinking about a less than sunny to-do earlier that morning with a husband or boyfriend who is out of work and physically lashing out.  In other words, if I try to imagine the possible facts of the hours or days in her life that led up to my encounter with her right now, then I might be able to think about her present behavior in terms of her goals, needs, and motives rather than in terms of whatever expectations I might have of her, no matter how justified.  A good tip might even shine some sunlight on her cloudy day.

There is something universal, something ecumenical about Mann’s monitory observation.  In one form or another it is as old as the Bible’s (Matthew 7.1) “Judge not lest ye be judged” and as distant in time and place from there as the Cheyenne proverb “Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins”.  Frankly, it seems to me like just good common sense.

All of this is of course not a proscription against making evaluations of people and their actions.  As that famous German Nobel Laureate in literature (in 1929 for Buddenbrooks – a book, I am loathe to say, I have never read!) put it, it’s merely a matter of trying to come to some kind of an understanding of what seems so puzzling to oneself.  And, I would imagine, of exercising sufficient empathy to cut the other person the kind of slack we’d like someone at some point to cut for ourselves.

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One Response to Gnomicon 212

  1. I love this quote, because, as a writer, it resonates with the idea of creating characters who have many layers and a multitiude of possible motives for their actions. As you have said, in reality, humans always have these motives, even if some may be more hidden than others. Utilising my more clinical side, I think that’s one of the things which makes humans incredibly fascinating animals to study.

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