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Observing Life with Alert Curiosity January 22, 2011

Posted by nrhatch in Humor, Mindfulness, People.

Rik posted a piece this morning on self-proclaimed writers who do not take the time to read ~ No Time For Reading.

One of Rik’s comments sparked this post:

It is said that we should not judge people based on “appearance”, or a book by its cover, but I don’t think that rule apples to writers.  

When we make observations about those around us based on their external appearance, actions and statements, are we judging them?

Not necessarily.

From my perspective, there is a significant divide between judging people and observing them (with alert curiosity), even when we draw a few innocent inferences from our observations.

If I see X eat a piece of chocolate cake, I might assume that X enjoys both chocolate and cake, at least on occasion.

That’s an observation with a dollop of speculation, not a judgment.

I am not assessing X’s moral character.  I’m just noting one aspect of X’s life based on my observations ~ and I understand that I might be  incorrect.

Maybe X hates chocolate cake and is eating it for its medicinal properties.

Or maybe T paid X to eat it for the commercial they are shooting.

Or maybe R double-dog-dared X to take a bite.  Or . . .

If I see X eat a piece of chocolate cake, and conclude that X doesn’t care about the world around him or her because the chocolate being eaten is made by Hershey and everyone knows that Hershey exploits child labor in collecting cocoa beans in third world countries and . . .

That extrapolation is a judgment, not an observation.  I am judging X as a morally bankrupt person without ascertaining if X even knows the origin of the chocolate in question.

If I see Z with a tattoo, I might assume that Z likes the idea of permanent body art and has a high enough threshold of pain to endure the process of getting a tattoo.

Standing alone, those are observations with some supposition attached.

If I see Z with a tattoo and conclude (absent other evidence) that Z is guilty of ALL the negative stereotypical behavior patterns I’ve observed in other  people with tattoos . . . that’s a judgment built on shaky foundation indeed.

Just because Z has a tattoo doesn’t mean that Z rides a motorcycle, or is a promiscuous anarchist, or . . . anything else we might have observed about people with tattoos in the past.

Maybe Z just likes having “Momma’s Boy” tattooed on his arm.

If I see Y race over to the dessert table at a Potluck Dinner, grab three slices of the best looking dessert, and scarf them down in 15 seconds flat, I might conclude that Y is more concerned with satisfying his own desires (at that moment in time) than in making sure that everyone who wants a piece of that dessert gets one.

If I later hear Y tell Q that he only ate one slice, I might  conclude, based on my earlier observation,  that Y is either lying (or delusional).

In both cases, I’m observing Y’s actions, and making  somewhat rational conclusions (which may be correct or incorrect) about those actions.

I’m not attempting to judge the totality of Y’s moral fabric or character based on those isolated factual observations.

In contrast, if I observe Y taking (and inhaling) the cake and immediately conclude that Y is a self-centered narcissistic jerk who ALWAYS puts his needs before the needs of those around him, that’s a judgment because I’m attaching far-reaching moral significanceto isolated  observations  made from a very limited vantage point.

In the courtroom, everyone observes the trial and takes from it what they will, but only the jurors are asked to judge the accused ~ by taking their collective observations and sifting through them to find the accused guilty or innocent of the alleged wrongdoing.

It’s still a subjective process, but far more objective than making snap judgments without seeking input from others.

When we, either as writers or as residents of this planet, observe people, places, and things with alert curiosity, we are going to see patterns which enable us to conclude, suppose, or conjecture about what we’ve observed.

Based on our observations and experiences, we may be drawn to some people, places, and things,  while being repelled by others.

Observing and evaluating people, clothing, movies, books, and food in the light of our past experience and life preferences is not necessarily the same thing as judging or pre-judging them.

Based on my life preferences, I know better than to order Green Eggs and Ham.

I’m not prejudiced against them because they’re green.  It has nothing to do with the color.  The color is irrelevant.

I just don’t like ham or eggs.

Likewise, we may read the back cover or inside flap of a book jacket and decide that we do (or do not) want to spend additional time reading the book based on our known reading preferences.  For example, if the cover of a book depicts graphic violence or sex, I know it’s not the book for me.

The problem arises when we view our life preferences as the definitive guideline for judging people, places, and things as good or bad, right or wrong,  or the actors in question as guilty or innocent.

Although I don’t want to eat Green Eggs and Ham, I would not judge ham or eggs as good or bad.   Most food is morally neutral.  The same cannot be said of food producers.

Books filled with graphic violence and sex don’t appeal to me, but graphic subject matter on the cover, standing alone, wouldn’t allow me to judge the book as right or wrong.  Even the Supreme Court, with its collective wisdom, needs to watch prurient films and read lascivious books before pronouncing judgment.

Refraining from snap judgments about people, places, and things makes sense given our limited vantage point, but we need not stop observing the world around us.

Just the opposite, we should keep our eyes and ears open and mindfully observe life with alert curiosity rather than a rush to judgment.

“Wow.  That person with purple spiked hair and seven nose rings just ordered a plate of Green Eggs and Ham and four slices of coconut custard pie.  That’s interesting.”

Aah . . . that’s better!

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1. Loreen Lee - January 22, 2011

I believe this distinction is correct; and further I believe it is what Kant meant in distinguishing judgments as based on emotion, normative conclusions in other words,, from observations based on reasoning, or inference concerning behavioral characteristics, more scientific ones, kinda…..But as writers, I do believe we give our personages in what we right normative values and characteristics.
Well done.

nrhatch - January 22, 2011

When someone acts in a certain way, and I observe those actions, and take into consideration other information that I have about that individual, and the world as a whole, I am able to reach certain rational conclusions about their underlying motivations, etc.

I may or may not be correct, but I’m probably in the “ball park.”

In contrast, if I meet someone for the first time, and they do something “odd,” I am more apt to reach for what I know about other people who’ve exhibited similar behavior in my effort to characterize the actions.

Again, I may or may not be correct, but the likelihood of being incorrect increases.

2. Patricia - January 22, 2011

Alert curiousity..I like that.

It is surprising–or maybe not–that so many take a person’s observations and make them into irrevocable judgements. I often observe and comment and just as often think differently the next time I see the same thing.

So much of how we think and respond depends on where we are on the journey.

nrhatch - January 22, 2011

I expect you’re right . . . the more mindful we are about our own actions, the less prone we are to judge the actions of others.

We see them and tend to accept them with less resistance.

3. Patricia - January 22, 2011

Oh my, I hope no one judges me by my spelling.

nrhatch - January 22, 2011

I shall not. 🙂

4. Paula Tohline Calhoun - January 22, 2011

Great post, Nancy – and another one of record length for you! I read every word, and agree with you completely. But once again we haave a sort of semantical difference – but it’s really not a difference (that makes sense, doesn’t it!? :-D) The way I have come to understand judgment, judging, judgmental, etc. has a fine but disctinct line between them. I believe that judging someone is not productive for anyone, as you say, because it is always going to be based on incomplete information – no matter how well we know the person. Besides, as a Christian I have been cautioned to “judge not, lest I be judged as well.” Judging and/or condemning, and/or being judgmental about positive aspects are not my job, but God’s.

That being said, I believe it is up to me to make judgments about certain behavior in order to assess your relationship with that person, or even from a safety point of view. If I am walking down a dark alley and I see a person juggling a knife in his hands, then I certainly should and will make a judgment concerning my own safety, and turn around and go back in the other direction. The fact that he might be totally harmless is completely beside the point. Erring on the side of caaution is always a good idea in such situations. I might even acknowledge at the time that he might be perfectly OK, but instinct would tell me to get away from the situation.

So, I make a demarcation between judging or being judgmental and making judgments. In this case I equate “making judgments” with your “alert observations.” This was especially pertinent in my role as a parent, and making judgments concerning children our boys wanted to “hang out with,” or situations they wanted to be involved in. Judging anyone’s character, motivation, etc. by observing outward appearances cheats not only the person observed but the person observing.

nrhatch - January 22, 2011

Excellent point, PTC. There is a time for making snap judgments.

When we are faced with the threat of imminent bodily harm, such as when someone is coming at us with a knife, we should definitely take a “stab” at judging their motivation and err on the side of caution.

nrhatch - January 22, 2011

Actually, I was not considering personal safety issues in this post at all. That may have been a very significant oversight.

There have been times in my life that my intuition “screamed” to alert me to danger. Listening to my intuition required that I judge someone else based on little or no factual evidence.

But each time it’s happened, my instinct and resulting snap judgment was correct ~ and saved me from harm.

Sometimes, we just KNOW. No questions asked.

Again, the above post is not directed to those types of situations and should not be interpreted to discourage all types of judgments.

If you feel that you are in danger, act first. Ask questions later.

Paula Tohline Calhoun - January 23, 2011

Absolutely, Nancy, and I in no way intended to imply you were in error. It just got me thinking in re judging versus making judgments! Your post was the springboard for my own thoughts in that direction, so thank you!

nrhatch - January 23, 2011

And your comment reminded me of a few situations that might be worth recounting.


5. Cindy - January 22, 2011

You’ve made me ashamed of myself. I will henceforth refrain from judging anything pink (bookcover, clothing, car) as frivolous and not worth my time ;p

nrhatch - January 22, 2011

Hahaha! It’s funny the prejudices and notions we have about things as innocent as those dressed in pink. 😉

6. Sandra Lee - January 23, 2011


An interesting exploration! I love the term “alert curiosity.” I agree wholeheartedly that “judging” is far different than “seeing.” We need to see and discriminate exactly what is what, but that’s not judging.

I find it gets a little tricky when we come to issues like this one: “Books filled with graphic violence and sex don’t appeal to me, but they are neither right nor wrong.”

nrhatch - January 23, 2011

Thanks, Sandra Lee. I’ve revised that sentence to clarify:

Books filled with graphic violence and sex don’t appeal to me, but graphic subject matter on the cover, standing alone, wouldn’t allow me to judge the book as right or wrong. Even the Supreme Court, with its collective wisdom, needs to watch prurient films and read lascivious books before pronouncing judgment.

7. jannatwrites - January 23, 2011

I agree with you – observing with alert curiosity is harmless. Trouble starts when we start to attribute personality characteristics or behaviors based on nothing but the outward appearance.

I feel fully informed, and ready to observe the world with alert curiosity 🙂

nrhatch - January 23, 2011

Alert Curiosity = Abed on Community

Abed cocks his head to the side and watches the actions of others with alert curiosity.

He’s gathering facts, not passing judgment.

8. viewfromtheside - January 23, 2011

some interesting things there, thinking time on a sunday is useful

nrhatch - January 23, 2011

Pause and Reflect. 🙂

9. M. Howalt - January 24, 2011

Well said!
I actually had a discussion on the topic recently. My conversation partner claimed that I judged people on their looks while what I really did was notice them. I observe people and consider things. I tried to come up with possible reasons for various things about certain people (possibly because I’m a writer and people’s stories/reasons interest me), but I was not morally judging them. I was curious and observant.

nrhatch - January 24, 2011

I’ve had the same experience.

People have accused me of judging others when I wasn’t “judging” them at all. I just mindfully observed what they were doing and commented on it.

The “moral judgment,” if any, came from those who took my “neutral” comments and chose to label them as good/bad, right/wrong, etc.

That’s not to say I never “judge” people. I do. Especially “repeat offenders.” 🙂

M. Howalt - January 24, 2011

Exactly! “She is wearing a green shirt” doesn’t have to imply “and I don’t like it”, “and it’s ugly” or “and that makes her look really good”. It’s just an observation.

nrhatch - January 24, 2011

I might observe behavior and comment on it by saying:

She interrupted me.
He called me names.
They lied to me.

Those are factual observations.

But some people don’t like it when we “observe” that the “socially acceptable masks” of those around us are slipping.

It makes them wonder if we see behind their masks as well. 😉

10. Seeing Things As They Are | Spirit Lights The Way - March 24, 2014

[…] Related post:  Let Them Eat Cake (View from the Side) * Observing Life With Alert Curiosity […]

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