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How to Be a Good Stranger


During a moment in the checkout line at Costco, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be the worst time for the apocalypse to strike. There might have been two hundred souls in the building, and if we were suddenly thrust into a survival situation by nuclear attack or zombie outbreak, we would have hundreds of tons of food, along with plenty of pharmaceuticals, first aid supplies, and toilet paper on hand.

If a crisis forced you to spend weeks or months together with a fairly random selection of strangers, you’d soon find out which of these people are a positive, helpful presence, and which aren’t.

Like most people probably do, I like to think I’d be one of the more helpful and welcome members of this new post-apocalyptic family, but I’m not sure why I think that. It’s probably the “Lake Wobegon Effect” — our tendency to overestimate our value and capabilities in relation to others. It’s the same phenomenon that has 90% of us believing we’re better-than-average drivers. (Clearly about 40% of us are wrong on that count, but I’m still somehow nearly 100% sure I’m not one of them.)

As Sam Harris points out in Waking Up, one of the reasons we feel so comfortable watching movies and television is because they allow us to observe and judge the intimate happenings of other people’s lives, while at the same time being completely shielded from their scrutiny of ourselves.

In any case, I’m fascinated by how readily we make judgments about strangers, yet how little we actually know about their personality and character (until, perhaps, some unlikely crisis brings them to the surface.)

Over the years I’ve become more aware of my snap judgments, but they still happen all the time. I frequently catch myself damning certain strangers as altogether bad people, on the basis of one instance of their not using their turn signal, or having a conversation that blocks a doorway.

I’m trying to overcome the habit of justifying these casual, internal condemnations of strangers. Instead, I see if I can overcome my initial negative impression completely, whenever I notice I’m being judgey. My new response to that negativity is this: I decide to drop the low-level resentment, and instead become their secret ally, for the few minutes we are in each other’s presence.

I’ll explain what I mean. This practice started spontaneously on an ordinary day a few months ago:

I’m walking several blocks to a little grocery store down my street, stuck behind a slow-moving man who is walking directly down the center of the narrow sidewalk. There’s no room to go around without stepping into the street, or shimmying past him on the building side.

At first I have my normal reaction of disdain and character judgments. The usual self-righteous internal monologue starts up: Some people just never think about how they affect others! I would never be that unaware of my surroundings! And so on. The fundamental message of all of these thoughts is, “I’m better than you.”

It’s telling that I only become interested in the Ethics of Proper Sidewalk-Sharing in moments when I’m being personally inconvenienced. Even though the issue undoubtedly affects millions of people every day, it never seems to be an important topic to think about at any other time. Many or most of our internal moral complaints about others are really just petty reactions to being inconvenienced, and not any kind of meaningful examination of personal ethics or how to run a society. I’m learning to distrust these kinds of thoughts when I have them, but I still have them.

Anyway, on this occasion I’m lucky enough to feel a pang of guilt for judging this person. He’s a middle-aged man, dressed in a golf shirt and dad jeans, almost certainly unaware that he’s blocking all but the most aggressive and acrobatic attempts to pass him. Still, it’s not fair to deem him a less aware or less considerate person than I am, because even though I’m frustrated with what he’s doing right now, I really know almost nothing about him.

Although I tend to walk at Manhattan speeds wherever I am in the world, right now I’m not exactly in a rush. So instead of making a move to get past this man, I decide to just relax and walk a good ten meters behind him, at a pace of his choosing. And instead of my normal habit of presuming he’s an especially bad or inconsiderate person, I’ll presume he’s an especially good one, or at least good enough not to deserve bitter glares from a stranger. 

Casual disdain for the odd stranger, for those of us who are prone to it, is a long-conditioned reaction and it doesn’t take much to trigger it. But in spite of my conditioning, I’d rather err on the side of being too approving and too forgiving of strangers, than settle into lasting resentment at the slightest offense.

So to keep myself on the fairer side, I decide that for as long as I’m behind this man, not only will I refrain from judging him, but I will watch out for his well-being, and come to his aid if necessary.

Whatever happens, if I really think I can help, I will offer my help. If he looks like he’s searching for an address, I’ll ask him if he needs directions. If there does happen to be a meteor strike or an alien invasion during my short tenure as his guardian angel, I will help him get to safety, phone his loved ones or fend off roving bandits. Even if there’s no obvious way in which I can help, I’ll still harbor a secret hope that this walk and the rest of his day goes well for him.

Now, it’s not important whether any of these events are likely to happen. The point is to locate that feeling of being willing to help, of being someone who cares about this other person. These feelings are incompatible with that of being just another cold stranger.

By doing this I’m creating a total, deliberate inversion of my initial feeling towards him. In the first moment I noticed him, he was an adversary, just another instance of evidence that the human world is mean, and that we are a selfish, thoughtless species — an irony that was almost lost on me. And now he’s someone I’m cheering for, someone whose well-being is worth something to me.

The most gratifying part is knowing that this man has no idea he has gained a secret ally — just as he probably had no idea when he gained, briefly, a secret detractor. My new role makes me feel good in the way judging him made me feel bad.

We make snap judgments of others all the time, and it’s not really on purpose. Those kinds of thoughts happen like reflexes. But we don’t have to believe them. If my initial impression of a stranger is a negative one, there’s no reason to take for granted that he truly is undeserving of respect, help, or well-wishes. In fact, I am almost certainly wrong to come to any conclusions about a person’s character after only “knowing” them for three seconds.

And I no longer believe that these kinds of judgments are somehow helpful to the world at large — that I’m somehow upholding order and civilization with my intolerance of any perceived infringement of sidewalk ethics. They are only helpful in a completely self-serving way: to convince myself that I shouldn’t be experiencing the inconvenience I’m currently experiencing.

If you live among strangers, chances are you are constantly becoming a private adversary to other people in ways you could never comprehend. Maybe somebody at the grocery store secretly hates you because of where you lock your bike up, or because you ride a bike at all. Or maybe you stand too close in the ATM line, or you use too many buzzwords, or you’re breaking some unwritten rule in a restaurant, or you’re in the way and have no idea. When you think of all of the petty things for which you’ve privately condemned someone at one time or another, it’s no stretch at all to imagine how often you are, in someone else’s eyes, clearly a bad person.

I’ve discovered that as much as I value good sidewalk etiquette and awareness of one’s surroundings, I want to be the secret adversary of as few people as possible. So part of my recovery is this new habit of becoming a secret ally to a given stranger the moment I notice I’m tempted to become his secret enemy.

Not only does it make that particular instance a much more positive and enjoyable interaction for me, but it’s quickly lightening up my overall relationship to strangers, even to the entire species.

I wonder a lot about the private grievances (and fondnesses) that arise between strangers, as we briefly pass into and out of each other’s lives. Imagine if you could hear every verbal thought that occurs between strangers during a single minute in a typical public square, airport, or streetcorner.

I would love to think that we’d hear more words of compassion, fondness, and willingness to help than words of disdain, but I really doubt that. Casual coldness to strangers is probably the norm.

But every norm has exceptions. You certainly have had secret allies, at times you will never know. And you can also be one, any time you like.


Photo by Kamal H

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Lívia September 23, 2014 at 3:19 am

It’s so good to see one my secret thoughts written so well by other person! It means we are not crazy or alone! :) I also wonder when do we start doing this.. how do we learn to have judgmental thoughts in spite of caring ones? Anyway, it’s an everyday exercise that pays off the effort. Thank you for spreading it to us! :D

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 9:42 am

I think we learn most of our judgmental thoughts from people around us making similar comments out loud. I don’t know about you, but mine are all verbal. Wherever they come from, we have to learn what to do with them.

Owen September 23, 2014 at 3:34 am

Interesting – this resonates with David Foster Wallace’s speech (which I read regularly to remind myself) about how your interaction with the world depends on your awareness of what you’re doing – how standing in a busy crowded supermarket queue can be an almost transcendental magical experience.

Sure you’ve read it, but if not: http://moreintelligentlife.co.uk/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

Anyway thanks for this – I’m going to try this from now on…

George September 23, 2014 at 8:54 am

It’s great, that speech.

“The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.”

But it’s a bit sad to read it, knowing what happened subsequently.

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 9:43 am

Read it many times, I love that speech.

Chris @ Flipping A Dollar September 23, 2014 at 7:04 am

The “good driver” thing always makes me laugh. I think we all forget that it depends on your criteria of good. I think a good driver is one who doesn’t drive around like a crazy a-hole, but I’m sure those people think that me slowly accelerating up to the speed limit and coasting to a stop (instead of gunning it and slamming on the brakes) makes me the a-hole.

This also rings true when I see some clip of someone on youtube that has had a moment of weakness (being mean, screwing up, etc.). They could have been a perfect person up until that one point and every point after too, but we condemn them as we sit on our butts, ignore the people around us and only focus on our phone, and click the youtube video link. Most likely, we forget about all of it 30 seconds later when we’re watching more videos of cats.

Great wake-up call.

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 9:45 am

Yeah, I think the internet age may be training us to judge more quickly, because we receive information in smaller bits and in greater quantities. Those poor cats must be tired of being judged.

StephInIndy September 23, 2014 at 8:41 am

a thought-provoking example of parts of the 8-fold path of enlightenment. thank you for sharing this today. it’s always a pleasure to be so engagingly reminded.

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 9:45 am

Thanks Steph!

Kim September 23, 2014 at 9:03 am

I love this post. I recently had a conversation about this with my sisters, because I was becoming aware of being judgey with strangers too. I’ve been trying to conjure up some empathy and remind myself that I don’t know what they’ve been going through. For example, maybe that person who just cut me off without even using a turn signal is in a rush to meet a family member at a hospital. Or maybe that person walking slowly down the middle of the sidewalk, unaware of their surroundings just got some news and that is the reason they are lost in their own world right now. (I’m from Chicago so I know what you mean about walking with speed everywhere you go!) So who am I to sit here saying or thinking how horrible of a person he/she is? I really love your strategy though, because it kind of takes it to the next level. You’re becoming their ally. I love it! I’m definitely going to put this into practice myself :-) thanks for such an inspiring post!

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 9:47 am

Right… when you question these little judgments, it’s usually pretty easy to see that they are unfair and unhelpful, but the negative feeling still lingers, unless you find a way to cultivate a positive one to replace it. And I guess that’s all this is.

David Baur September 23, 2014 at 9:10 am

I had a similar “awakening” a couple of years ago, which is of course not to say I practice it perfectly or even all that well a lot of the time. It hit me specifically in terms of driving behavior. The realization I had was that, in addition to it being unlikely that someone who makes a mistake that happens to inconvenience me is an entirely loathsome person, part of what leads to that mistake is systemic. When someone cuts you off, fails to signal, or doesn’t observe proper right away, at least part of the time it’s due to the act of driving itself being an often stressful and harried experience. I started trying to make the assumption that perhaps that person doesn’t know their way around the area or was stressed by the fast moving traffic along the four lane arterial road that has stoplights and turn lanes every 200 feet and simply had a momentary short circuit in their processing of all that information. This doesn’t excuse all bad behavior, but it sure helps in forgiving it.

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 9:52 am

Yes, this is a great point. The notion of moral judgments becomes a lot more complicated when we realize that behavior of individuals within a society is largely systemic. All behaviors have ancestors, and it’s possible that the person just was not, in that moment, capable of doing anything else. We have this idea that all of our actions arise independently from previous events, and therefore that any “inconsiderate” action is a pure reflection of that person’s character and nothing else. But it’s much more complicated.

Trixie September 23, 2014 at 9:36 am

I love this column, too. A couple of years ago I started to notice my making snap judgments about people (which I’m sure I’ve done most of my life). While I never have made myself a secret ally (interesting idea), I stop the thoughts as soon as I notice I’m having them. I also think about snap judgments people probably make about me and know that they’d often be wrong. I’ve gotten so tired of other people’s and my own negativity (am I judging them?) that I’m trying to turn it around. I have a long way to go, though.

I just read this to my son, as I’m trying to get him to stop doing the same thing and making snap judgments about people, suggestions, outings, etc. Better to start breaking the habit at 12 than later in life.

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 9:55 am

Thanks Trixie. My “secret ally” technique has been a good way of not only halting the negative thinking, but erasing its lingering effect. It’s almost like a kind of alchemy — you end up turning a negative and cynical feeling into its opposite. Worth a try.

BrownVagabonder September 23, 2014 at 9:41 am

I absolutely identify with the story of the slow walker! Instead of feeling angry and damning an individual for being a slow walker or not using a turn signal, I am going to try your technique of trying to see world from their perspective. Trying to be compassionate to them, and imagining all of the sorrows and hardships that that person could potentially be dealing with at this moment.
Way too often, I jump to the conclusion that that person is bad. How can I make that leap? What do I really know about them? Thank you for reminding me of this.

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 9:57 am

It works with a zillion other things too. Any time you notice yourself rolling your eyes, gritting your teeth, glaring, or exhibiting any other judgey behavior, you have a chance to put this to use. I haven’t found many scenarios where it doesn’t feel right to wish for this person’s well-being. And it only takes a moment.

LunaJune September 23, 2014 at 9:51 am

David what a truly fabulous post… I can tell you for sure the more negative thoughts me mutter inside our heads at strangers follow us around , like a heavy fog, you can spot those people a million miles away. I’m not saying my impatience hasn’t made me utter things I regret, oh no far from it, but once you see the difference it makes in your own day to day world , it becomes much easier to stop yourself.

and oh my , if we heard the thoughts we think at each other, maybe it would teach us to be more mindfull … one can only hope

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 10:00 am

Thanks LJ. Reminds me of a great line in a Modest Mouse song:

No one really knows the ones they love. /

If you knew everything they thought I bet you’d wish that they’d just shut up


Valerie September 23, 2014 at 9:53 am

Thank you. As usual, thank you.

David Cain September 23, 2014 at 10:00 am

Thank you for coming Valerie :)

Carolyn September 23, 2014 at 10:32 am

I’m going to spend the day mindfully and consciously being a secret ally to everyone I encounter. Then I’ll try it again tomorrow and the day after.
Thank you David.

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 8:50 am

Let us know how it goes :)

Kristi September 23, 2014 at 11:29 am

Thanks, David, for this post. Yes, I’m getting older and becoming more cynical. But I like the idea of stepping back and being a secret ally. It’s a great lesson for me, and will be an even greater one for my kids.

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 8:52 am

I haven’t been doing it for that long but it really does seem to be reversing the cynicism and casual misanthropy that I still feel. Try it and see how it goes.

Suzanne September 23, 2014 at 12:18 pm

You know, I had a moment like this back in the spring; where my husband and I were driving on the very busy Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Traffic was shitty as ever, and of course that’s frustrating, but we weren’t bound by a set time, and so I was peaceful about it. My husband is an Angry Man Driver, however, and yells about everyone who isn’t driving to his standards.

Anyway, in the middle of this very busy Gardiner traffic, things suddenly ground to a halt, and suddenly the cars started swerving around a white truck in the middle lane that was completely stopped. My husband began an epic diatribe, but as we passed him I looked at the man driving, who was staring at his phone with a shocked look on his face.

All I could wonder was if this man got some really terrible news, right then and there, that simply brought his entire world to a screeching halt. What if the text on that phone was that his wife had just died as he was on his way to see her in the hospital? What if his kid was just kidnapped from school? His son committed suicide? What if his mother had just been killed in a car accident, or his father arrested for murder?

I can’t imagine that driving would be my biggest concern in those sorts of moments either. Obviously safety is concerning, but in the slowly moving traffic, with everyone else jockeying for position and trying to make the highway go faster, it wasn’t like he was really impeding everybody; they all went around him and probably cursed him out like my husband was. It wasn’t really a safety issue at all in that moment. I can imagine being shocked to my very roots like that and just freezing, and while I know most people are pretty evil about bad drivers, all I could do in that moment was mentally send him some compassion and hope he was okay. I’m pretty sure that nobody else was in those moments. It’s amazing how generosity of spirit eludes so many while driving.

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 8:58 am

It is definitely always possible that somebody has just received some devastating news, or has otherwise just experienced something that would seem to explain their behavior.

But I think it is important to acknowledge that our compassion for them does not require that there is some extenuating condition that makes their offense “okay” in our judgment. It is entirely possible that there is no decidedly good reason for an inconsiderate behavior, and yet we can still wish them well and even help them.

Jamie September 23, 2014 at 1:18 pm

I love this post, thank you.

I too have tried to be more patient lately. There are certainly a few pet peeves I have and you’ve hit some of them here. (Stopping for a conversation in a doorway, really!? Might as well be right at the bottom of the escalator!)

I have to say, one thing that’s made me infinitely more understanding/patient is the process of becoming a parent… and I think that’s pretty common. I hear horror stories and complains about “awful children” and “negligent parents” via twitter, Facebook, etc. But how do we know those children aren’t great kids, but just having a bad day? Or maybe the parent just found out a family member has passed, and is on the phone “ignoring their child” while they are making necessary travel arrangements? Or maybe they’re just absolutely exhausted, or their child is teething. I have no idea what’s going on in that person’s life or what’s going on with their kid. All I can do is try to be, like you said, an invisible ally – understanding that life is hard, parenting is hard, and the world would be a better place if we were all a little bit kinder to one another, even strangers. (Especially strangers!)

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:06 am

Right, we really have no idea what is happening. Every behavior is a part of a sequence of causes and effects, and we know that if we think about it, but we still believe we can be sensible judges of character based on a few seconds of observation.

We can even judge people when there is NO bad behavior present at all. I notice this in myself when I’ve just gotten on a plane and someone with a baby sits near me. I automatically start thinking “Oh GREAT! A BABY!” and I’m already getting mad at the baby and its parent for making my airplane experience worse, and of course this is completely unfair — it is perfectly reasonable to bring a baby on a plane, whether or not it affects my experience or not. And most of the time the baby barely cries, if at all. The stress and resentment in this experience was always created entirely by me.

The last flight I was on, I applied this technique. I decided that I wanted the baby and its mother to have a relaxing and easy flight, and that if there were an emergency I would be watching out for the both of them. And it changed everything. The baby did cry a few times, and it didn’t bother me at all.

Genevieve Hawkins September 25, 2014 at 2:57 pm

So true Jamie. I’m a parent of a toddler, and I’m sure I’m secretly being judged more than usual for bringing the kid in public spaces. Me and my husband were recently in a Home Depot…our two year old wanted to play. This is a situation where she shrieks and wails in protest if I try to strap her into a shopping cart (causing snap judgments I’m sure). So we let her run around, going in and out of display doors and kitchen demos while waiting for our paint to be mixed. At some point a Home Depot associate lectured us that we needed to put her in a cart right away because she might get run over by a forklift driver. I wonder how many other people had conversations in their head about our parenting skills before she spoke up. It’s something we all do, no doubt. For me it has declined with age and experience based empathy (i.e. I would have been first in line to judge parents with kids in stores BEFORE I was a parent). But a conscious shift to thinking about what you’re thinking certainly helps! Wonderful article…

Sasha September 23, 2014 at 2:46 pm


This is a really thoughtful post, as always. I am also going to be more deliberate about some of my initial reactions to minor annoyances throughout the day – the lady paying with a check at the grocery store, the driver who switches across 4 lanes to make his exit, or the co-worker who is apathetic and clearly doesn’t care about his/her job. Still easier said than done. I will say, however, that most of the time, my judgements about others come as a reaction to men’s words, stares, harassment, etc. To try to ally myself secretly with them seems like a betrayal of my own sense of self, or my own instinct to protect my mind/body. Perhaps as a man, this experiment is very different, as you are not likely to be targeted for street harassment. So your responses are more about the way you’ve been inconvenienced, rather than violated. I wonder if other female readers are having this same thought. But a lot to think about here, David. I loved it!

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:10 am

I think it is obvious we are talking about very minor offenses here, such as people walking too slowly — not harassment or worse. And for the record it is not only women who are targets of street harassment.

And when it comes to ladies paying with checks or drivers that don’t plan ahead, I would argue that it’s easier to do this than to not do it. There is much more difficulty to be found in being slaves to our initial judgments. It’s just that we’re not in the habit of questioning and reversing them.

Sasha September 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm

I wasn’t implying that your advice is to be used for horrible offenses, I was just sharing my thoughts regarding the daily snap judgements I make. Some regarding minor annoyances, and some regarding bigger annoyances.

Sasha September 25, 2014 at 1:07 pm

and yes the street harassment of men is also a huge problem

Kristin Addis September 23, 2014 at 2:48 pm

This is excellent, Dave. It seems rooted in Buddhist philosophy as well. As soon as I started feeling compassion for strangers rather than contempt, I realized it made ME so much happier. I also think people can feel when you send that kind of good energy their way, and it comes back to you. It improves life in general and it’s just one small change, but with a massive impact. Very well said, as is usual with your writing.

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:12 am

> As soon as I started feeling compassion for strangers rather than contempt, I realized it made ME so much happier

This is really important, and it is reason enough to do it. It just makes your own experience better. It resolves those instances of casual contempt in a very clean way than leaves you feeling great, not just about that person but about all people.

Leigh Shulman September 23, 2014 at 3:25 pm

I love this. “I want to be the secret adversary of as few people as possible.”

That’s what I want too! :)

I also find myself in this habit of reacting to others based on very little information. Well, my own information, my self and whatever is going on with me and mine.

It’s a fabulous practice to separate from it, and it’s always refreshing to hear your viewpoint on things.

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:16 am

Always good to hear from you Leigh :)

We really do have very little information when we make most of these judgments. They really aren’t logic-driven, they’re almost purely emotional and they happen in an instant. If you start to examine them logically once they happen, very few seem justifiable.

Daniel September 23, 2014 at 3:38 pm

This is called being black in America, always have to be two steps ahead of everyone’s judgements

Tallgirl1204 September 23, 2014 at 11:00 pm

I understand your sentence as a stand-alone concept, Daniel, but I’m not sure how it relates to the article. Can you help me understand how being others’ secret ally is the same as being two steps ahead of their judgment?

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:16 am

Can you explain what you mean? How do you know what other people’s judgments are if they don’t say anything?

John September 23, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Wow, David. Great post! This is something I have been thinking about a lot but hadn’t come up with a good plan on how to overcome my negativity.

I travel outside the country 8-9 months out of every year and so I spend a lot of time on foot. Because I walk at warp speed most of the time, I find myself regularly irritated at people in my way and “oblivious” people in general. And 99% of the time I have no schedule to meet so this is truly only a psychic injury. I have actually given this a lot of thought because it is a rather constant low-grade disruption to my equanimity. I realized my irritation, at the core, is related to being ignored and thus not treated as the extra-special person I imagine myself to be!!

But what a simple, compassionate solution! Muchisimas gracias!

Next on your list – a strategy for my exasperation in the gym when the plates or dumbbells are all f**ked up!!

sally September 23, 2014 at 8:35 pm

John, I don’t use the gym but my parallel is the work kitchen, so often left wet or dirty. My strategy is to leave a place better than I found it. So I give it a clean and the sense of leaving it better is a good feeling, an accomplishment. Maybe that will work in the gym.

David – thank you, I will certainly try this. I have grown more accepting of driving differences over the years so I drive very calmly now (most of the time), but I will try it with the slow walkers, the slow service and the other trivial annoyances that really shouldn’t be affecting the quality of my moments, and won’t if I don’t let them.

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:19 am

I urge you to try this. I also walk in the 95th percentile for speed and so that makes for constant “psychic injuries” of this kind. This is the only thing that reliably works for me.

Tallgirl1204 September 23, 2014 at 10:23 pm

You made me remember, with goosebumps, the time a stranger on a sidewalk was my ally. I was visiting Washington, D.C., and became confused at an intersection with many traffic signals, including a dedicated one for the bus lane. I began to step out into the street in front of an oncoming bus, when a hand reached out and pulled me back on to the sidewalk. I don’t remember the gender or race of the person, but I can still feel their hand on the crook of my elbow, and the whoosh of the bus as it passed by. I’m still grateful.

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:20 am

Stories like that just warm the heart. Every time a stranger has reached out to me in any way, it left me glowing with gratitude.

Richard September 23, 2014 at 10:29 pm

To go through the world being a ‘secret ally’ of those that you come in contact with – what a wonderful way of developing a personal ‘super-power’ that we can access and put to use at any time! When I find myself being less than accomodating in my thoughts toward random strangers (or even those that are known to me) I’ve learned to recognize the internal signs that Im sitting in judgement of that other person. Here’s the thing about judgement that I’ve learned – it makes the ‘judgy’ person (me, in this instance) feel TERRIBLE! There are tons of other reasons not to judge people, but this one has been the easiest to grasp. Whenever Im tempted to go on a 30 second ‘rant-in-my-head’ about whomever…when I check in with how I truly feel when Im being judgy, it doesn’t feel good. At all…and Feeling Good is the place where I want to live my life from.
Where judgement increases….love decreases. And where love increases, judgement decreases. Thank you for an amazing article!

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:25 am

Even though it is a compassion-based habit, it definitely does give you more personal power. You gain a rather direct method of control over the emotional experience you have in relation to the behavior of someone else (which you can never control.)

tallgirl1204 September 29, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Yes, a personal super-power! I think this idea is great. My friends sometimes discuss their personal super-powers, which range from “finding lost objects,” to “singing harmony with anything” to “knowing exactly what sized container the leftovers will fit it.” But the idea of developing the super-power of being a “secret ally” of those we come in contact with– well, that’s just wonderfully sneaky and super-power-y, eh? Makes me feel all Clark Kent, just waiting for an opportunity to put on my cape and spring into action.

Marty September 24, 2014 at 6:21 am

Thanks for posting this, I think about this a lot and just today I was especially misanthropic at the aupermarket. I could feel my anxiety levels rising and rising. My problem is that I do all sorts of “mental contortions” that follow a path of “look at this rude asshole in my way. Wow, I’m being really judgmental here. I’m sure they just don’t realise they’re in the way. I’m sure they’re a good person.” But then I can’t just accept that, and my brain starts going into overdrive, “Nah, no one around here is a good person. Look at how ignorant and ” then the inevitable guilt and being so aggressively judgmental… “I’m the horrible person here. Not them. I’m the judgmental one. In fact I’m the outsider. I’m at fault.” … Then the attempt to find resolve and strength “don’t judge yourself like this! It’s not that bad. Everyone is like this…” And this process repeats and repeats and repeats and it really wears me down.

Your post is making me realise, right now, that I need to talk about this and make an effort to uncover some of these deeper issues for my own mental health. So thanks!

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:28 am

I do that too. I have found it is not enough to simply tell yourself not to be judgey. You have to reverse it completely, and find that place where it feels good to want this stranger to have a good experience. It really kills that tendency in the judgment to fight its way back into your approval.

holly September 24, 2014 at 8:23 am

You were in my head, you must have been! I’m so quick to judge. I remember learning about the Fundamental Attribution Error which is our tendency to put too much emphasis on personality characteristics when looking at other people and explaining their behavior, and too little emphasis on the situation. Of course when we explain our own behavior we take the situation into account. Why can’t I remember this?

David Cain September 24, 2014 at 9:31 am

In my experience the initial judgment still happens. It’s pretty much involuntary. But you can learn to use that as a cue for thinking about what it would be like to be a silent supporter or helper of that person. The more you do it the more likely you are to remember.

Cait Flanders September 24, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Love everything about this post, David. But I’m still stuck somewhere in the middle of being a judgmental stranger and being a good one. For example, when I hear friends judge others, or get angry about how a stranger has inconvenienced them, I always encourage them to give those strangers the benefit of the doubt. However, when I am the person who feels inconvenienced or slighted, it’s hard for me to see past it enough to give myself the same advice. Like with anything, I’m sure time / triggers / reminders will help me change this thought process.

Also, because I was just there, I have to add: New Orleans is full of secret allies. Everywhere you go, strangers will open doors for you, ask if you need anything, and tell you to watch your step on the “uneven roads we got, sweetie”. Southern hospitality is a real thing, and it made me want to be a better stranger.

David Cain September 25, 2014 at 8:49 am

Hi Cait. I’m the same. When other people are talking about how they were slighted or inconvenienced, it seems obvious to me that there is no reason at all to make a thing out of it. But when it’s me, of course it’s totally different.

New Orleans sounds wonderful. I’ve never been to the south, and I hear great things.

Joey September 24, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Hi David,

I love your articles, and I have been reading them for about 8 months now. This one hit very, very close to home. I used to think people cutting me off in traffic or walking slow on the sidewalk were “over-identified with ‘ego.'” Although that may be true to an extent, it can only be determined with time, and that snap judgement immediately puts them in the category of “villain” and me as “superior.” Although I habitually took a step back and relaxed, I still didn’t feel great about it. My mind still cursed them as my body softened. It felt better than riding the emotional wave of rage, but something was still brewing within me. Beginning yesterday I took on the role of ally and I immediately felt so much better. Now I can sit back and genuinely root for everyones success. Thank you so much for your insight – I look forward to practicing this daily and continuing on the journey of life. :)

David Cain September 25, 2014 at 8:51 am

I’m so glad you tried this. It really is a relief, isn’t it — to drop the adversarial relationship and actually cheer for other people, as a default. It’s like getting permission to put down some big heavy object you thought you always had to carry.

Benjamin September 24, 2014 at 3:09 pm

I work in downtown Manhattan which over the years has become a major tourist attraction to the point that every time I take a walk outside I launch into the standard litany of complaints about how slow, oblivious, and downright inconsiderate tourists can be, especially when they’re taking up the sidewalk preventing me from getting to my all-so-important destination. Funny thing is how often I forget how the same thing was happening to me when I visited Paris a couple of years ago, having to stop every few blocks or so to figure out where I was and probably getting on someone else’s nerves. Thanks for reminding us again that “it isn’t personal and it isn’t a contest” so, lose the story line and lighten up.

David Cain September 25, 2014 at 8:53 am

One thing I love about Manhattan is that it is the only place in the world where everyone else walks at my normal speed. So I found myself much, much less frustrated by slow strangers every time I went for a walk. Of course I stayed away from Times Square.

Asset-Grinder September 24, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I found when I lived in a big culturally diverse city that people often just stick to themselves and people in general were quite unfriendly with no sense of community. Since leaving 5 years ago to a much smaller city I found people are much more chatty and friendly and try and get to know you.

David Cain September 25, 2014 at 8:55 am

I think that’s probably a general tendency with cities. The greater the population, the more isolated we are from each other. Probably not always though.

Mark September 24, 2014 at 6:35 pm

When I’m driving, I totally condemn bikers and walkers who inconvenience me. The do such crazy, dangerous things!

It’s a whole different story when I’m the biker or walker though. Then I’m amazed at how rude some many drivers are. “Hey! I’m walking here!”

Tallgirl1204 September 24, 2014 at 10:18 pm

I do exactly the same thing! Or used to, more– these days I just tell myself that we all want to get where we’re going safely, and that it’s my job to help others as much as myself. Oh wait, that’s what the article is about! I don’t think of myself as very advanced in this, but maybe I have come a ways. I still have a long way to go in when it comes to slow lines, though…

David Cain September 25, 2014 at 8:56 am

Haha… me too. When I’m driving I hate bikes and when I’m cycling I hate cars. But now that I do both roughly the same amount, I’m more patient overall with people in different kinds of vehicles.

Heidi September 24, 2014 at 8:14 pm

What a great thought for the day and I will definitely try that next time. I tend to think of a zen story about a man helping a mad woman across a puddle with out thanks, his young companion is mad about it all day, to which the man replies,that he has carried that woman all day and it has ruined his day. I usually think of that whenever someone is ‘in my way’. I also adopt the thinking that maybe I need to slow down!

Like you said, most of the time these people have no clue that they are inconveniencing you. I also find that if you truly need that person to stop or step aside or something, asking nicely can most times get a positive result. Not only do we need to learn some compassion and caring for strangers but I think we also need to learn how to talk to them. That whole ‘don’t talk to strangers’ campaign I was raised with stuck a little too well, haha!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

David Cain September 25, 2014 at 8:59 am

Talking to strangers is a skill I only learned well into adulthood. I wish we wouldn’t teach children that strangers are bad. I’m sure the “don’t talk to strangers” mantra is part of the reason I developed my casual disdain for strangers.

Chris September 24, 2014 at 8:50 pm

David – your ‘secret ally’ technique is brilliant! Having just visited Manhattan for a long weekend I can certainly relate to your story of being stuck behind a slow walker with no escape path. At times I found my annoyance level pretty high because hey, I have places to be. <- Not really.

I know I should be unfazed by the situation. I know it's not the slow walker that's the issue, it's my *reaction* to it. My mood shouldn't be so easily influenced.

And I think re-framing the situation so that the slow walker isn't a secret enemy but a secret ally will instantly re-wire how we process what's happening to us. I love it! Another good tool for my toolbox, along with the serenity prayer.

David Cain September 25, 2014 at 9:01 am

Especially in the village where they have those trees in the sidewalks. Between them and the apartment stoops the sidewalk gets pinched down to like a two-foot path, and getting around someone is like playing Super Mario Brothers.

Chris September 25, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Yes! Can’t the DOT just pave over the trees to give us pedestrians more room ;)

Sebastian Aiden Daniels September 24, 2014 at 9:16 pm

If you are in a depressed mood, it can be a little frightening at times to think about the snap judgments people make of you. I’ve often got the he seems like a confident asshole type before people even seem to speak me. I know this because they’ve told me their judgment after they had known me for a while. It always shocks me, but it is what it is. I like your subtle way of reframing your brain one step at a time. The world will become less judgmental when we each start working on letting judgments go every day.

David Cain September 25, 2014 at 9:05 am

I’ve found that there is a correlation between how readily we judge others and how worried we are about being judged. I’m going to write a post on it one day, but the way I solved the problem of worrying about the judgment of others was to reign in my own conclusions about others. Often the feeling of “being judged” is only the feeling of judging somebody else to be judgmental.

I suspect that anybody who thinks you’re a confident asshole by the way you look lacks confidence. I have had those judgments of others too, many times, and it tends to be when I lack the thing I am judging the other person for having (confidence, money, expertise, etc.)

Shannon D. September 25, 2014 at 8:19 pm

Just what I needed! Thank you! While I was aware of being judgmental, I needed something to replace the judgment instead of berating myself for being judgmental. I love the idea of being a secret ally.

Glen September 26, 2014 at 12:19 pm

David, I truly enjoy your writing and this post speaks to me like none other. I’ve engaged in a Buddhist practice wherein one wishes strangers well, but I always seem to default to being judgmental and the corresponding wish to be less so. Your idea is a great replacement behavior. I was looking for something to practice with my son–we ride the bus often and we can both be very judgmental of many of the people at the bus stop. I will suggest the “secret ally” next time the two of us are in that situation.
Thanks for your blog!

Jmu September 26, 2014 at 1:01 pm

I am surprised nobody mentioned prayer. I am not in a religious community but many times when I have expressed my frustration with someone else, I have been advised to pray for them. My first impulse is ‘yeah, pray for them to get hit by a bus’ but I know that ain’t right. It really works better if I pray for them to have what I want.
This will help me take it a step farther, into action; watch for the chance to be nice.
I have long practiced that when I find myself frustrated with the driver in front of me, the frustration usually vanishes when I get a car length for every 10 mph behind them.

Jay September 27, 2014 at 4:55 pm

David – this post really opened my eyes and I’m already starting to see the difference in my daily life. Thanks for sharing the wisdom.


dlc September 28, 2014 at 7:05 am

if you started a church i would be in it

Duska Woods October 1, 2014 at 9:13 am

David, you hit the nail on the head with this excellent blog. Judgment is a very common habit. Don’t know where and when it starts, probably from parents and culture and it’s not even important, important thing is that giving up judgment bring great freedom and also makes one feel ONE with the rest of humanity. It is amazing how it opens the heart and makes one feel softer without the resentful edges and ‘feeling better then’.Thank you dear David you are very astute and generous person, we love you. Duska

Randy Hendrix October 3, 2014 at 12:53 pm

So…I’ve been watching my daily activities since this post and I do believe I probably have quite a few secret adversaries. What an eye-opener David, thanks for the heads-up! For me, this is probably one of your most thought-provoking posts yet!

Chops October 3, 2014 at 6:54 pm

David, articles like this one are part of the reason this is one of the best corners of the internet. Thanks for making it happen.

Arch October 5, 2014 at 6:30 pm

I absolutly love this!

Arthur October 6, 2014 at 5:12 pm

This is a cool article. Definitely qualifies as fresh content!

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JuliaG October 8, 2014 at 4:35 pm

I’m a bit late to the party but boy did this resonate. Just the other day I was terribly annoyed with a driver in front of me because they were going too slow (at least too slow for me to make up the minutes I’d spent at home before I left late, oh the nerve). But as I tried to keep from completely riding their tail in order to communicate to them that they were a very rude driver by not going the speed limit and having the impertinence to do so ahead of me, all of a sudden I noticed their left back tire was completely flat. My attitude immediately changed and I became empathetic and started to feel concern about where they could go to get it fixed. I actually felt relief when I saw them turn into a service station a few blocks later. That was a wake up call for me but it was circumstantial and could have been forgotten or chalked up to the one exception to the rule of inconsiderate others. My own experience plus your (as always) eloquent and astute writing on it will help me to practice this same compassion and caring even without new information to change my attitude on a case by case basis. Thank you for your generosity in sharing your musings for the growth and benefit of so many strangers. :)

uncephalized October 17, 2014 at 3:01 pm

This was beautiful, David. Thank you for writing it.

As for being a good driver, I’m pretty sure I’m at least slightly better than average because I’ve never been in a collision in 12 years and a couple hundred thousand miles of driving. Then again, could be a statistical artifact. Fingers crossed I don’t get proved wrong tomorrow!

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