“What an idiot!”

“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”

– Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People


Just last week, walking back to the office with my coffee, I was startled by the wailing of a horn. I looked over and watched as a driver in an SUV pounded on her horn out of frustration of an elderly man backing into the road from his parking space. There was no indication of a ‘close call’-the driver was stopped, but apparently offended by the inconvenience of having to interrupt momentum to allow the car to back out.

The driver hammered onto the horn about four times before the car ahead of her drove off.

My immediate reaction: “What an idiot!” But then I caught myself. Yes, from my vantage point, the driver of the SUV acted irrationally and frankly, made a fool out of herself for not controlling her emotions better than that. But then I reflected on my initial reaction – which was also triggered by emotion.

We are indeed creatures of emotion. I pride myself with having developed what I would think is a strong aptitude for rational and logical thinking. But applying these attributes is a matter of conscious choice. So in that moment, my instantaneous belief about the horn incident (that what she was doing was wrong!) immediately made me angry (probably because I felt empathy for the other driver) and this resulted in me judging her character (labelling her an idiot).

Rewind. Instead of allowing my emotions to dictate my perception of this person, I proceeded to separate myself from my emotions. I chose to exercise reason and logic to work through this incident-chalking it up with not knowing the full story. Perhaps the driver of the SUV is having a bad afternoon, day or week. There are countless life challenges that she could possibly be dealing with and this relatively minor frustration may have served as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  What if she was in a rush to get to the hospital after learning her child suffered an accident or something? Certainly, in this situation, I could understand why she would behave in that manner. But maybe there’s nothing that would have motivated her, and that she is nothing more than a poster child for ignorance-who knows?!

The point is, unless we know the truth behind why she acted as she did, we effectively lack any credibility when passing judgement. Can you imagine going to court and the judge immediately sentences you to ten years in prison without even reviewing your case? Of course not, it wouldn’t make sense.

Indeed, a very minor incident and a simple example to make an important point: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” (Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). When we stop consciously acting out on emotion because we ‘think’ we understand, and instead, strive to genuinely learn to understand people and their behavior, I believe we in some way elevate our emotional I.Q. We tend not to over-react as quickly to situations; and tend not to fire off words or fists that we may later regret – escaping the inevitable consequences of a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality.

Rather, we position ourselves as objective-minded creatures who can, by some capacity, regulate their emotions and acknowledge that no one in this world is perfect by design – especially including myself. I believe this is key to a more tolerant and constructive society – one not “…motivated by pride and vanity.”