If you’ve been to Santa Monica, California you are familiar with the Santa Monica Pier and the 3rd Street Promenade. Both are fun, bustling, outdoor gathering places which mimic ongoing carnivals, complete with barkers, street performers, and vendors of all sorts.
Yesterday, on the 3rd Street Promenade I ran into one such carnival barker who wanted to sell me something or another. I had just completed a day at a conference so I looked a bit out of place in laid-back California with my dark blue suit and dress shirt. Loud enough so everyone around could hear, he said, “Hey, hey, stop and talk with me.” I smiled, threw up my hand as if to say, “Not right now,” and kept walking.
He then shouted, “hey, stop and talk with me preacher man. . . look at you, with your blue suit, looking just like a preacher man.” And in one of those rare instances where the timing of good comeback occurs instantaneously and not a half hour later, I smile and said, “yeah, looking like a preacher, but feeling like a sinner!”
The man paused, almost stunned that his routine had been interrupted, and started howling with laughter. “Now that was good! You got me on that one.” I could hear him laughing for the next few minutes as I continued on my way.
I tell this story, not because I made a joke that worked (although that part was fun). But because the guy that I encountered most likely spends the bulk of his day making snap judgments of people. “Who should I call out? Who will buy my stuff?” He sees people walk by everyday and makes an instant, snap judgement. The truth is, he is probably right most of the time. But not always. With me, he was wrong – good humored, but wrong.
And we do the same thing everyday!
- With the people we work with and for;
- With donors and prospects;
- With our spouses, partners and children;
- With our friends and, certainly, with complete strangers.
We make quick, snap judgments based on our biases and beliefs about people. Drives a luxury vehicle? Has wealth. Speaks slowly? Probably, not too sharp. Etc, etc.
The problem isn’t that we make snap judgments about people. We have to make them at some level in order to navigate the world. We have to depend on our instincts and our quick impressions in order to be productive and make good things happen.
The problem occurs when we don’t balance our snap-judgments with a healthy dose of curiosity. There are times when our snap-judgments don’t give us the complete picture. We need to sensitively inquire, reflectively listen, and thoughtfully explore. The art is in knowing when to snap-judge and when to employ our curiosity. Because in our work as leaders and development professionals, it’s awfully helpful to know when someone who looks like preacher really feels like a sinner.