Assume Positive Intent

Many years ago at a previous job, I was put through several rounds of “sensitivity training” with my colleagues due to internal personality conflicts and petty strife. It was a very frustrating and mostly useless process, but I did take away one valuable thing: The phrase “assume positive intent.” Since this phrase and the idea behind it have become central to my life philosophy, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I learned them during these otherwise fruitless sessions. But hey, get your wisdom wherever you can, right?

The core of the idea is that human beings are not inherently malicious, conniving creatures and that most of our ideas and actions are well-intentioned. Even many of the ones that SEEM spiteful and rude are often driven by positively-fueled emotions like concern, compassion, and curiosity. Obviously, some people are just assholes. And some non-assholes occasionally make asshole moves. But to me, “assume positive intent” doesn’t mean, “Be a naive fool who trusts everyone to be filled with Mother Teresa-level compassion.” It means, “Try to examine sentiments and actions from multiple perspectives before allowing yourself to feel hurt or offended.”

I knew a guy in college whose face was so scarred from acne that it looked red, swollen, and painful at all times. People would stop him and offer ideas for how to deal with his acne. On the street, at the grocery store, wandering around campus. And his acne was absolutely none of their business, and it was completely inappropriate for them to think that stopping a stranger to discuss a highly personal issue was remotely acceptable. BUT. What they wanted was to help him, ease his (assumed) suffering, make his life better. They weren’t the right people to do that and their methods were embarrassing and insulting, but the intent? Positive.

One of my girlfriends has full tattooed sleeves, and boy does she get the third degree about them. Everyone from kids to oldsters proffers commentary, often along the lines of, “Why did you do that to yourself? You’re limiting your career choices, and some people won’t respect you because of those godawful tattoos.” And, again, none of their business, completely inappropriate to comment. COMPLETELY. Especially as tattoos are permanent so lamenting their presence on a person can sound a lot like, “Damn, you made some terrible choices, doll. Way to go.” But once again, most of these folks are feeling some measure of anxiety and concern for my friend. They may be especially worried as copious visible tattoos on women are still a relatively new phenomenon, and they want to shield her from judgment. These nosy parkers are irritating and overbearing, but there are germs of real, human positivity fueling their unwelcome rants.

Are there people who use the facade of positive intent to mask feelings of superiority? Oh, yes. Especially when it comes to matters of appearance. A (different) guy I knew in college once told me that I’d be so much prettier if I “just put on some makeup and a skirt once in a while.” Awful, right? Seemingly a play to assert his own coolness. And yet, examining his choice through the lens of positive intent is still beneficial, at least in the aftermath. The guy was a total loser, no question, and he said something he knew would hurt me. But some part of him believed that he was doing it for my own good, to help me, to steer me in the “right” direction. He knew nothing about me, it was not his place to decide what was best for me, and by being so blunt and rude he lost any chance of convincing me he was right. At the time, I was devastated and felt real hatred for him. It tore me up inside, and I spent weeks feeling ashamed and angry. But faced with the same situation today, I hope I could be more dispassionate. I could say to myself, “This person is making a lot of assumptions about me and voicing his opinions in an invasive way. On some level, he thinks he’s helping me. I’ll avoid him from now on, but it’s not worth my energy to worry about his statements or bother with hating him.”

Assuming positive intent helps me to feel simultaneously more detached from and invested in humanity. I still get rankled, but I’m often able to find the under-layers of goodness in words and incidents that rankle me, which helps me to un-rankle a lot faster. And seeing that positivity all around me makes me more patient and kind with my fellow human beings. It feels good to know that people may bungle the hows, but the whys are quite often fueled by an earnest desire to keep others happy and safe.

It doesn’t always work. Sometimes people are cruel, sometimes the hurt is too overwhelming and trying to squeeze some form of kindness from that cruelty is just impossible. But I highly recommend assumptions of positive intent whenever possible. Forcing yourself to believe the best about people allows them to show you their best more often.

Image via WeHeartIt.

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  • Tina

    A very nice post–I think that many people have good intentions–such as “you would feel better if you lost some weight”. But then again, some people ARE assholes.

  • What an awesome consideration 🙂 I’ve had an extreme version of hair loss condition called Alopecia Areata my entire life, resulting in my being completely bald from a very young age of five years. Throughout my childhood and my adult life I have had people comment on or touch my head and assume things about my “hairstyle”. I have over time realized of course that without a doubt a number of these people were simply attempting to put me at ease, assuring me it looked “cool” or were concerned about my health.
    Even knowing this and dealing with it for many years doesn’t mean I stop and “assume positive intent” every time, but this is a great reminder. What a great way to put it 🙂

  • Courtney Landes

    I tend to do this in some situations but not others. In the case of the last example you gave, I don’t think I could personally assume positive intent. On the other hand, in situations like that I can usually cast intent aside and realize that behavior like that is not about me. When someone is intentionally behaving cruelly, it is almost always about them–about something that is broken inside that they can’t fix. It still gets me to the place of viewing their actions dispassionately, but I just can’t bring myself to assume any kind of positive intent when someone is being deliberately cruel.

  • Liz

    As a fat woman, I have received a lot of comments from my parents regarding my weight and their concern for my health. I call these comments “concern trolling”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troll_(Internet)#Concern_troll)

    My weight has nothing to do with them (nor do my tattoos, my piercings, or anything else). Their concern is not with me, it is with their own comfort.

    • Jen

      Yep. Absolutely. When I walk laps around my church, I almost always get a comment from people asking if I’m trying to lose weight. Instead I’m trying to keep my body active and release endorphins to help with depression. When I order a salad at a restaurant, I must be watching my diet, not because I’m a long-time vegetarian and happen to love a good salad. I generally just smile and tell them my real reasons.

      • Jen

        P.S. My therapist gave me a jewel the other day. “Only family will act truly awful to us because they know we won’t leave them or go away.” My dad’s undergoing chemo and both him and mom have been particularly snappy lately.

  • My father was a psychotherapist and told me something very similar to this when I got my first retail job at 17. That people are inherently good, but sometimes something affects them so much that they lash out. So all the angry, or upset, or difficult to deal with people were really in pain for some reason, even if that reason wasn’t visible or didn’t seem logical. (Even the assholes have something going on that you can’t see.)
    It definitely changed my point of view about working in customer service, and made me re-examine my own motives when interacting with other people. Like you said it’s not about letting people walk all over me, but it’s about assuming that underneath the angry there is a reasonable person. And that sometimes people are just ‘trying to help’.

    P.S. Be nice to customer service people because most of the time they CAN help you, and they will if you just treat them like a human being.

  • Jo

    I’m in the middle of a divorce, and I’m the one that left. In the months since then, I’ve had a couple of people that I did think of as friends tell me that what I was doing was awful, dishonorable, stupid, etc. At least one of them said that he hoped he never had to speak to me again. I know that part of what motivated them was protecting my ex, and there were undoubtedly feelings of surprise and bewilderment. I don’t think they were really reacting to my specific situation, either, just that it’s really unusual and scary for a divorce to happen after 19 years of marriage. I really have tried to believe that they were trying to do something good, but when vitriol comes my way, especially when I’m already hurting myself, it’s hard to put up enough of a shield to see that “good intent”. But I do wish they would have trusted in my good intent, rather than believing that I’m out to hurt him and be awful. This is a good reminder to have out there in the world. Thanks, Sal.

  • A.

    This is something I definitely had to try to embody while pregnant, because once your belly is out there, all of sudden everyone has the best intentions with their comments. But asking me about my heartburn and labor and delivery? Or giving me advice about what my body is going through? A little personal – yet people think because pregnancy is visible it means they have full right to comment on it. I just had to slap on a smile and then go complain to other women who understand. 🙂

  • SamiJ

    I once read a book in which the characters would mock their elders (out of earshot) with the phrase “They mean well.” For some reason it struck my sister & me as funny & we would use it whenever a relative offered us some ‘advice’ like how to find a boyfriend, the more makeup thing, why a push up bra could make a world of difference, and how being opinionated/argrumentative would never land a guy. [Okay, they were right about the push up bra, but the rest, Ha!]

  • I think most people are naturally good, and mean well. I try to respond to snarkiness by reminding myself of that maxim. I am not always successful, and some people are *not* well-intentioned. But it’s still probably better for me to try to float above snarky remarks. Outright cruelty to another person or animal, however, has to be acted on!

  • I agree with Liz that many of these sort of comments are for the comfort of the commenter, not ourselves. However, I like this outlook of positive intent. This is one reason why I don’t moderate comments on my blog – while there’s some meanies out there, I think most critical comments have positive intent. For people to take time out of their busy day to offer me “advice” either on my blog or in real life… I just have to spin it in a positive light, and appreciate them making the effort (even if I fully disagree and temporarily get a complex over it).

  • I had a similar discussion this weekend with friends who work in a store and said they can’t understand why certain parents don’t say anything to misbehaving kids. I responded that often when I am not visibly responding to my kids misbehavior, I am actually working very hard mentally not to scream at and hit them, which to me is a better, if not “good” reason for appearing not to respond to their bad behavior. Speaking of, they’re misbehaving now, so I’m off to not scream at or hit them.

  • Anne

    Terrific advice Sally. I will try to keep it in mind the next time I feel like some one is nagging me or passing judgment.

  • Coleen

    Thank you for this post. It brightened my day on so many levels. Some days we are looking for one thing and we find another that we need so much more. I love your blog and I try to look at it everyday as a treat, one I especially needed today. Your words of wisdom set me on a positive track on a day when I have issues that don’t show up on the outside, but still made me feel less than lovely.

  • This is interesting, because I assume positive intent a lot of times, but almost never when it comes to comments about people’s looks. Unless the comments are, in fact, positive. I do think that it’s probably inappropriate to rip someone’s head off if they comment on your acne, but it’s also NOT your responsibility to accept negative comments because you hope they mean well. And if someone fails at being kind, intentionally or not, I don’t think it’s helpful to respond as if they succeeded. And the reason we all have to work so hard to develop positive body images is because people line up to tell us what we’re doing wrong: wrong shape, too many tattoos, uncomfortable acne… etc. I’d rather someone’s good intentions be called out than be ok with negative comments on my appearance.

    • Sal

      Very good points. But I’m not advocating accepting negative comments on appearance, taking them to heart, or rewarding the people who dish them out. Not at all. I’d rather focus on how I process those comments. It’s easy to default to defensiveness and anger and assuming that a person offering an unwelcome opinion is aiming to hurt or belittle me. But when I do that, I dwell and stew and waste loads of energy on thoughts and words that shouldn’t matter that much to me. Allowing anyone to hijack my emotions or thought processes with their unsolicited opinions means yielding a lot of power to them. When I assume positive intent, I can detach and move on. (Most of the time.)

      We definitely teach people how to treat us, and actively thanking someone for offering unsolicited, negative commentary on your looks (or life) isn’t something I’d advise. But processing that commentary by considering that the advice giver was likely aiming to help can give a less hurtful perspective on a startling or upsetting interaction.

      • Ahh! I see what you’re saying. I totally agree. There are two parts to every interaction: your outer and internal reaction, and I can definitely see how changing your INTERNAL reaction can make a big difference, regardless of the outer reaction.

        I’m on board. 🙂

  • Michelle

    In the grocery store the other day, and a handful of other times, people (generally older) will see my adorable, fantastic 2-year-old and tell me a story they read in the newspaper or heard from a neighbor about a toddler-aged child who went missing, wandered off or drowned in a pool.

    The positive intent, I’m sure, is to warn that I am careful with my precious commodity (something I’m actually quite focused on, thank you).

    I do think sometimes of responding with, “Are you threatening me?”

    So far I’ve resisted.

  • This is a powerful post. I think even the negative ugly insults, being able to look at them this way and realize this person is not worth the investment of anger, hate and even thought on your part is powerful and being able to see them as the misguided comments that they are without passion is important.

  • This is completely brilliant. I’ve always tried (though often failed) to live my life this way, but it’s good to see that someone else is succeeding.

  • Cel

    The tattoos thing… I work in an office environment, and while I have tattoos, they’re nothing to shocking or flamboyant or out there. I have my great grandmother’s name framed by four Brown Eyed Susan flowers tattooed on my inner left arm. A woman came in one day… and told me I was “bold and brazen” to be wearing a red shirt while having that tattoo. She said it clashed, and I should only wear clothes that match my tattoos. Um, what? I had to be polite to her, but man, I was shocked. How is that even okay?! Ever? Maybe she meant well, but still.

    • Sal

      Please see “some people are just assholes” caveat. 😉

  • Emma

    While I agree that assuming positive intent can save people from a lot of heartache, I think that is a very personal choice and one that comes from a point of privilege. I don’t have problems assuming positive intent because I am cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, thin, white, college-educated, and middle class so I rarely face oppressive comments. But I would not suggest (for example) to a person of color that they “assume positive intent” when a white person asks them “where are you from?” or “why is the concept of ‘colorblindness’ offensive?” (In case you’re unsure, it’s because it erases important aspects of people’s heritage and identity and suggests that our experiences are the same regardless of race, which is simply not true). In these cases of systematic and structural oppression against POCs, LGBT people, fat people, disabled people, etc. assuming positive intent could translate into permission for people to continue to be rude to and oppressive of others. In my opinion, the focus should be on speaking up against (for example) people who criticize strangers’ tattoos because if we don’t we are making it okay for them to keep being rude and, as Liz said, to keep complaining about things that make them uncomfortable, but aren’t really any of their concern. To me the examples you’ve listed sound like microagressions (if anyone doesn’t know this term I recommend they check out microagressions.com) due to gender and appearance and while individuals may personally like to “assume positive intent” in order to find these situations less hurtful that is their choice. And I know, Sal, you’re not suggesting everyone must follow this advice, but that it might (and clearly already has been) helpful to some. I just wanted to point out that I think the ability to follow this advice is a privilege.

    • Sal

      Indeed. Very well stated.

    • JM

      I think you’ve brought up a very interesting point. And to build on that, I think that negative comments with positive – or even neutral – intent can be excellent opportunities for education. When I tell people that my dad is blind, often, their first comment is, “that’s so nice that your mom married him anyway!” Instead of getting offended, or just going quiet, I’ve learned to smile and tell them more about my dad: how he is at the top of his field, how much of his time he donates to his community, that he works on cars and computers, that he is a good father and husband. Why wouldn’t my mom want to marry him (did I mention that he’s also good-looking)? 🙂 Maybe, just maybe, the next time they run into a blind person, they will say hello instead of awkwardly stepping aside. And if they don’t, I can still walk away knowing that I spoke truth into a negative situation. Racism, sexism, classism, sizism, and most other –isms are born out of ignorance. It’s tough for most of us to do, and may not be helpful for all situations or all individuals. However, when we can choose to set aside our (often rightly) bruised ego, I think it is empowering to turn a hurtful comment into an enlightening conversation.

      • Eleanorjane

        Fabulous, JM!! 🙂

      • Jen

        Totally off the topic, but have you seen the USA show Covert Affairs? It features a blind character, Auggie, who is totally badass. He’s ex-military, works for the CIA, is awesome in hand-to-hand combat, and has quite a way with the ladies. Not to mention he looks damn fine without his shirt. Just thought I’d mention it.

    • I really agree with you about this. It’s a very privileged attitude to say that we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt because it perpetuates the idea that others have rights over our bodies.

  • LG

    This approach works wonders in marriage too! (i.e. hubs didn’t intentionally leave the cupboard door open so I’d bang my head on it!) :0)

    • I couldn’t agree more!!! I have to remind myself of this A LOT. For some reason it’s harder the more time you spend with someone!!

  • “But faced with the same situation today, I hope I could be more dispassionate. I could say to myself, “This person is making a lot of assumptions about me and voicing his opinions in an invasive way. On some level, he thinks he’s helping me. I’ll avoid him from now on, but it’s not worth my energy to worry about his statements or bother with hating him.””

    or you could observe: “huh. Another jerk-off buttwipe.” and go on with your life.

    that was what i thought while reading your post, then saw your comment: “Please see “some people are just assholes” caveat. ;)”. i try not to assume too much about people, and let their actions reveal who they are over time. steph

  • Shawn

    Reminds me of this quote, attributed (probably incorrectly) to Napoleon. “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

    • JennyDC

      I love this.

    • Fruitful

      Doh! I was gonna say that! 🙂

      That saying often gets me through the day!

  • I actually think this works on a macro level, too. Most evil that’s done in the world isn’t accomplished by a Bond villain waking up in the morning and saying, “I think I’ll be as evil as I possibly can today.” It’s done by people who, at some level, are trying to do good, for themselves or their neighborhood or their country, and just have too narrow a perception of what good might be. Widening and deepening that understanding of the good, so that it includes everyone, is one of the tasks we can help undertake.

  • Not assuming positive intent is setting yourself up for preemptive disappointment in others—which isn’t fair. Sounds like you’ve struck an important balance between assuming the best in others yet not being destroyed when some people don’t live up to their best potential.

  • Thank you for the reminder, I think it is important to remember that for the most part, people are doing the best they can. I say stupid things that I’m kicking myself about later, and I always hope that others look past my big mouth to my good intention, so I try to give others the same courtesy.

    I love your new short hair profile pic, BTW 🙂

  • katrina

    Sal, what a great post. More and more often I find myself lacking patience and getting extremely frustrated with people who offer advice from a different perspective than I see it. Assuming positive intent may be exactly what I need to calm down and appreciate them for their view, instead of immediately jumping to make a scathing comeback.

  • Caroline

    I think this every time someone asks me where I’m from. I’m from Houston, born and raised. But I am also deaf, but wear a cochlear implant, so I have the “accent” of a deaf person. So, I sound like I’m from another country, and I’m very aware of my accent. But I can’t change the way I sound now, because it’s how I’ve sounded for so long. It’s really, really hard to change speech patterns. It’s mostly just annoying when people ask me where I’m from, because they’re making an assumption about me before they even know me. And if they’re making that assumption, then what’s to say they aren’t making other assumptions, such as “Oh, she must be stupid,” or “Oh, she can’t hear me,” or “She must be an immigrant, taking our jobs!” Maybe the last one is a stretch but I do worry about that sometimes. Plus, that question just leads to awkward conversations with strangers because they are clearly confused when I tell them I’m from Houston. Most of the time if they continue to question me further I will tell them I have a hearing impairment but sometimes I don’t feel like telling a stranger that and so they’ll continue to question me, asking me questions like “Where is your mom/dad from?” (yes, really) Until I finally tell them to shut them up.

    This is something I’ll have to deal with my whole life, most likely, but that doesn’t make it any easier or any less annoying.

    • Mia

      Caroline, my stepmother is deaf and a cochlear-implant-wearer, and also from North Carolina, so it’s really helpful to hear your perspective on things. I don’t ask her questions about her experiences because I don’t know how, but I want to tell her what a brave and strong woman she is for living through a lot in a world that is biased toward the hearing. Thank you for commenting here.

  • Lizzy

    So I am a tall woman, usually in a skirt, who gets called “sir” occasionally, almost always by check-out clerks. I usually give them the benefit of the doubt — they rarely look up and I am taller than most people in my town — but yesterday the woman looked me in the eye and asked how I was doing today, “sir”. I do not know what to do with that! I paused, calculated, said fine, how are you, did not get the quick apology I often get after I speak — and obsessed over it ever since. I have no idea what she was doing. She seemed nice enough. I also get frequent queries about my height, which seems more along the lines of what you’re writing about here today. If it’s a woman or a child, I can usually roll with it. If it’s a man, it usually feels aggressive, like the demand to “smile” does, and one of these days I’ll write Miss Manners for advice on how to deal — or not deal — with them. Thanks for the place to write about this!

    • Jen

      My voice is really low (second alto) and so often at fast food places I get called sir at the drive-thru. They usually apologize when I roll up to the window though. I’d love to read you Miss Manners piece on it when you write it.

    • Sarah

      This happens to me on occasion, and I’m not even 6 foot, but taller than most women and I get lazy and pull my hair into a bun for work.

      I think sometimes it’s just an unfortunate mistake based on not looking properly as you have said, and personally I think that most of the time the person is too embarrassed and afraid of causing further upset to correct it. It would cause more embarrassment and potentially upset to offer us an explanation along the lines of “oh, I’m so sorry, I mistook you for a man!”.

      Along with the advice Sal has offered in her post, I also always try to remember that people are generally thinking 99% about themselves and their own lives and issues, so careful observation may go out of the window.

      It does make me feel better to know this happens to others though. Thanks for sharing.

  • TrudyBlue

    My husband and I actually put that into our wedding vows: When in doubt, assume the positive. It has spared us numerous petty fights and helped us be more compassionate with other people, too, because now we look for alternate interpretations and explanations. Sometimes people are intentionally cruel and selfish, but mostly they’re just myopic and clumsy. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that sometimes I’m unkind or unfair, but I regret it when I realize it, and I bet most people do, too. And how much do I appreciate when my husband or anyone else gives me a pass for being an accidental jerk? Enough to do the same for them whenever there is a scintilla of doubt about their intention. And if I fail to get angry when someone really is trying to provoke me? Well, I guess that’s still a win for me.
    (Which is all to say: nice post, Sal.)

  • Becky

    One of the nice things about assuming positive intent is that it works pretty well even if the other person is intentionally being a jerk.

    If they’re trying to shame/belittle/insult you, and you respond as though they are well-meaning but awkward at expressing themselves, you have shown that their malice has failed to hurt you.

  • Mia

    Thanks for this, Sal. I’m going to save this and look at it frequently. I suffer from anxiety and depression issues, and when I’m in the middle of a low, I tend to assume that people mean the worst because in those moments, my self-esteem isn’t doing so hot. My boyfriend bears a lot of the brunt of this, and afterwards I know it’s ridiculous to think that he is intentionally a jerk or mean to me or thinks so little of me that he would do things for the reasons that, in my irrational bouts, I assume are his. I think this will have to become my mantra for those times, and for every other time I get mad at someone because I assume things about their intent.

    • Sarah

      I go through this as well Mia, I’m tough on my husband when I am in a bit of a low period, and then I am tough on myself when I realise what’s happened, which in turn causes a deeper low…

      It also happens at work, except instead of lashing out I tend to get irrationally upset, which I then get embarassed about..cycle through again..it’s tough.

      This is a great mantra, particularly for work situations where there are SO many hidden reasons as to why someone might say or do something that seems totally unreasonable.

  • This is such a great post, Sal. While the concept of assuming positive intent is easy to understand, it can be hard to put into practice, especially if you’re in an emotionally charged moment. Being mindful of it is an ongoing process. 🙂

  • Azure

    This is such an interesting discussion. So I understand that the advice given pertains to how to process this internally, but when someone makes a comment that comes across as rude, how do you respond externally? What do you say, if anything?

    I struggle with this a lot, because I feel like for most of my life I have given people the benefit of the doubt way TOO much, and therefore I have let them off the hook for bad behavior. After a while, you feel steamrolled. I never want to be rude in return, but I also don’t want to be a doormat, or as another commenter mentioned, “give people permission to continue to be rude.”

    For example, just today a friend of mine — who has never been anything but nice to me — made a comment on Facebook insulting where I chose to live. My thought was, why? I wished him a happy birthday and in response he insults me. So here’s an example of something that is soooo minor in the grand scheme of things, and my default response is to let it go and say nothing, but a little part of me wishes I had something tactful, light, yet firm to say in response to let him (or anyone) know that random insults are not appreciated.

    Anyone have any one-liners that have worked for them?

    • Sal

      I, too, find it difficult to walk the line between assuming positive intent and becoming a doormat. It can be tough to suss that out sometimes.

      For anything related to my appearance, tattoos, weight, etc. I go with, “My body, my business.”

      In fact, I think focusing on the “business” end of things can be helpful in other contexts, too. If a stranger offers any kind of unsolicited advice, something along the lines of, “I’m sure you mean well, but I really don’t see how that’s any of your business,” gets the point across pretty well. Acknowledges the potential for positive intent, dismisses unwelcome prying.

      In terms of the Facebook situation you’ve got. Bleh. How awful. Since that’s someone you know and have online contact with, you could go with the direct. Send a FB message saying, “I’m really hurt by your comment about my neighborhood. Why would you say that to me, and in a public forum? Am I misinterpreting you somehow?”

      • Eleanorjane

        Great advice! I’m definitely of the ‘assume positive intent but politely push back’ school of thought.

        While it’s good for us to try not to be too sensitive or make negative assumptions about people’s motives, it’s also good to help them relate to us by giving tips. i.e. “Thanks for your concern about my weight, but just to let you know, when you make comments like that I feel a bit hurt and insulted.” or whatever…

        ‘When you… I feel…’ statement are helpful if you need to actually have a relationship with the person i.e. a friend, relative, work colleague. A stranger on the street can politely be brushed of, I think.

    • Azure

      Update: I confronted my friend about his “rude” comment, and his response was, “What…??? I never meant it that way.” While I still don’t think it could have been interpreted any other way on my end, I do believe him, and I guess this is a case where I should have assumed positive intent and kept my mouth shut. Now I feel bad for implying that he could have had malicious intent, but I guess you win some, you lose some when you don’t have a crystal ball. I normally never risk speaking up in CASE I was wrong, and as Murphy’s Law would have it, the one time I do speak up, I regret it. (But good practice confronting someone, I guess!)

      • , and I guess this is a case where I should have assumed positive intent and kept my mouth shut. Now I feel bad for implying that he could have had malicious intent

        Absolutely not! Your friend should feel bad that he said something insulting to you without meaning to.

      • Don’t feel bad; hopefully he will phrase things more thoughtfully in the future which is a good thing.

        • Azure

          Thank you! 🙂

  • anon

    This a very personal thing for me so I’m going anonymous.

    I lost my first, and at the time my only, child to cancer. She suffered horrendous, painful, excruciating treatments for 10 months and then she died. While she was being treated and particularly after she died, people said all manner of things to me.

    They wanted to tell me that god was going to save her. Or that god was going to take her because he needed her for a higher purpose. That we were going about her treatment all wrong. That they knew why she had cancer, and how it was our fault for how we fed/raised/schooled her.

    After she died, one of my very best friends, who is quite religious (I’m not), told me that she struggled with how her god could take an innocent child from loving parents, and she couldn’t reconcile that with her faith, but then she decided that god had done this to remind her to appreciate her own children more.

    And I was, like, hey – happy to help.

    I remain friends with this woman, though it took me a long time to forgive her. How I did it was as you describe. I thought not about what she actually said, but what she meant. She was in some way trying to help me, and more importantly, help herself from being frightened by what had happened to my daughter.

    It takes a lot to rise above this stuff. In the aftermath of daughter’s death and my subsequent divorce, I got a lot of unsolicited advice about how I was grieving incorrectly and handling my divorce the wrong way.

    Lots of therapy.

    Anyway, I congratulate you, Sally, and any of your readers who have adopted this philosophy. It is a much more peaceful way to live than to be in constant anguish about other people screwing with you.

    • Sal

      I cannot even imagine how difficult and painful it must’ve been to lose your daughter AND have to contend with commentary on your loss, the aftermath, the divorce. Pretty sure you’re the one who deserves some recognition for rising above, here. That takes patience, strength, and incredible character.

      • anon

        And therapy. But thanks!

        • Eleanorjane

          As a Christian, I’m so sorry for the unhelpful comments you’ve experienced from Christians around you. Your explanation of how you dealt with their horrid events and their aftermath is inspirational. Remember to congratulate yourself for surviving!!

    • Shaye

      I’m so sorry for your loss. That would be unimaginably painful.

      Speaking from recent experience, I’ve come to the realization that when a horrid and tragic death occurs, even the sincerest and best-meaning people out there will say some of the stupidest and most offensive crap you’ve ever heard. (Like equating the death of someone’s sister with putting down their cat. For real.) And I think for the most part, when faced with something so terrible and painful and shocking, people simply don’t know what to say, to the point where, when they open their mouths, they feel like they have to say something, but their brains are empty. And who knows what comes out at that point?

      • This is incredibly true, unfortunately. I deal with this frequently in my job. Sometimes the most powerful and consoling thing you can do is shut up and just give some one a hug and sit silently with them.

        If you don’t know what to say, generally the best choice is to not say anything.

    • Fruitful

      Anon, I feel enraged just hearing how people treated you. You are an amazing woman to practise this – and assuming positive intent is essentially a spiritual practice – I salute you and wish you the best.

      Sal, this is one of my favourite posts ever. ^_^

  • Lori

    “Everyone from kids to oldsters proffers commentary…”

    This editor/writer thanks you for subject–verb agreement. ♥!

    • Sal

      Hahaha, I try!

  • that IS great advice, because i think that so often, even if the original intent was NOT positive, that responding as if it was causes the whole situation to take a turn for the better. i know that when i’m the party guilty of snarking, if someone responds to me in an overly friendly/innocent way, i re-think my sarcastic/negative attitude, and decide to go ahead with the more positive spin on it.

    as a semi-random aside, this made me think of a time when i would assume positive intent a little too much. at my first junior high dance, the best looking guy came up to me and my group of girlfriends- we all had a crush on him, and were so excited. he pointed to me and said “she’s the best looking girl here. i can’t wait to get her phone number”. all night i waited, wondering why he never came to talk to me, or ask for my number. and all the while i was wearing my sponge-painted coke-bottle glasses, and a mouth full of braces for my beauteous underbite… and only YEARS later did i realize he had been sarcastically making fun of me. i’m so glad that at the time i assumed positive intent. had i not, i would’ve spent the remainder of the night hiding out in a bathroom stall feeling depressed.

  • I have to admit that I’m far more likely to assume, as tiny junco so eloquently put it, that someone is “another jerk-off buttwipe” if they say something that insults me. Mainly because I have no time for people who can’t grasp the delicacies of human-human interaction. I get what you’re saying though; at the very least, I think it’s safe to assume that most people aren’t actively malicious. At worst, they are insensitive or are simply just not thinking before they speak (or write).

    Whatever the intent though, I think it’s fair to call people out if they say nasty things. Why should the recipient of a rude or snarky comment be the one to walk away feeling bad? It should be the person who said it, especially since they really might not know what effect their words have, and taking them to task might save them from being such an asshat in the future. If I can assume that someone had a positive intent in telling me my tattoos make me look trashy, then they can assume that I have a positive intent in telling them that their comment makes them sound like a dick.

    • Secret Squirrel

      I agree. I am sure that I put my foot in my mouth and unintentionally offend someone sometimes -either
      I realise after, or there must be situations where I haven’t- and I would expect to be called out, gently, on it. I usually let the person know tht I didn’t appreciate the input. But I will continue to think about this, so thank you Sal, for another thought-provoking post.

  • Marsha Calhoun

    Your assumption of positive intent seems both practical and charming. And you do have to assume some attitude, after all, when a person makes an unsolicited personal remark. I liked it better when we taught our children that personal remarks were rude, with the occasional exception of heartfelt compliments.

  • Eh, I don’t think this would work for me. Most of the time, people know when they’re being rude, and they certainly know when they’re being mean, and in most cases I don’t think there was any positive intent. There’s usually another reason behind it (like insecurity) but that doesn’t make it okay. A previous commenter mentioned that she tries to remind herself that this kind of behavior is usually not about her, and I can get behind that kind of reasoning. I try to recognize when I shouldn’t be taking something personally, and respond accordingly.

    That’s not to say that I go around getting offended by everything. I’m a 20-something, average-looking white woman and I don’t have kids, so there’s not much for strangers or casual acquaintances to hassle me about. But when I do get unwanted comments or advice about something I’m pretty good at sussing out what that person’s intentions were. I think we all know, intuitively, why people say and do things. Choosing to assume the best might give you some peace of mind, but I would feel like I was lying to myself, and I wouldn’t feel any better.

  • E.

    You are a caring person, Sal. But I just can’t give people the benefit of the doubt. At some point, the stranger has to know that it’s rude to point out any part of someone’s appearance. Unsolicited advice is rude.

    I agree with Emma’s comments above. When it’s personally based on minority issues it crosses the line into discrimination.

  • Katharine

    Thank you for this post! It was very timely for me. Someone offered me unwanted advice today, which came across as very pushy and I told her so. But her motivation was very clearly good (and there was no complicating sexist/judging factor, she just wanted to help). She was concerned and caring, but expressed it the wrong way. Now I’m dealing with the fact that I upset her by telling her I was annoyed by the advice, and second-guessing myself, despite the fact that so many other commenters seem to think it’s a good thing to call people out. I wasn’t angry, just pointed out that I didn’t need advice. Was it worth while if I lose her friendship? I dunno. I hope she takes some time to think it over.

  • CJ

    I appreciate this glass half-full attitude, and I can see how it can be helpful. However, for me, I find the corollary more helpful: Don’t assume malicious intent. I don’t think most people are actively trying to hurt me. But, people are thoughtless. They offer unsolicited advice or commentary for a myriad of reasons that rarely have to do with a deep personal connection with me or concern for my welfare. Sometimes I choose to confront the thoughtlessness and sometimes I let it go, depending on my mood and my relationship to the commenter.

    I’m fortunate to spend most of my time with positive people who wouldn’t think of offering this kind of commentary. But this hasn’t always been the case. A single comment doesn’t amount to much, but receiving the same types of comments and advice over time can add up and wear a person down. I appreciate that Emma brought up the issue of microaggression. I recently read an article in which the authors (sociologists) examined the cumulative effects of (seemingly) minor negative interactions toward people of color. It can be very damaging to a person emotionally and physically – stress takes its toll on the body.

    Love your blog, Sal, and I love your positive attitude. Thanks for giving us space to discuss these issues.

  • I’m not sure I could disagree with this most more strongly than I do. Intent doesn’t determine reception, which I’m surprised you didn’t learn in your sensitivity training. I don’t give a shit if someone intends to be nice when they insult my weight or ask why I use a cane or tell me I shouldn’t be wearing that or say they don’t mind nice gay people like me but freaks shouldn’t get married. Almost everyone thinks they’re being nice, but that doesn’t give them the right to give me their opinion about my body or my life or my choices, and remaining polite and assuming positive intent may be nice, but it sure as hell doesn’t change anything. Sure, in a workplace situation, it might be necessary at times, since you can’t escape your colleagues, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let people get away with their offensive behavior just because they meant well.

  • Lydia

    I think this is good advice, especially when dealing with people we know well, such as closer family members who care about and love us. I believe what I gain from this advice the most is to take that pause or step back, and think before responding or speak (usually a good idea).

    However, I think boundaries have to be established and strangers or rude people who step over the line need to be pushed back. I beleive that often responding to others, is about protecting my own space, and usually instinct guides me to whether someone is genuine or not. A thought provoking post.

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  • SamiJ

    Almost everyone thinks they are being nice…

    That reminds me. We are everyone. Which means not only have the commentors been the recipients of (perhaps) well-intentioned gaffs and rude comments; they also (most likely) have made their own gaffs & rude comments.

    It is easy to remember the slights we have received; it is truly more painful to remember the slights we have delivered.

  • i’m sooo glad i read this a couple days ago. today at work these old folks were saying rude stuff about my tattoos–‘waste of money, too bad you can’t get them lasered off if you change your mind, you better hope your lifestyle doesn’t change, what if you change your mind and don’t like them’ and i kept this article at the front of my brain! thank you so much for posting this, sal!! it was a great thing to reach for when i was very frustrated.

  • Erin

    This works at work too. That prime assignment went to someone else for an affirmative reason, not so they could deviously screw me out of it, muahahaha. Having this attitude makes it much easier for me to be loud and obnoxious about making sure I get the next good one, because I don’t feel like there is something wrong with me or I would have gotten it. I just need to figure out why someone else did and then fight to get myself in that position.

  • letta

    I haven’t read through the comments, so forgive me if this is repetitive (and honestly, I hope it is), but this strikes me as an absolutely transformative thought–one of those very tiny hints at how to be a more graceful human. Thanks for sharing it.

  • This is exactly how I live my life! I wasted so much time being hurt and angry that now I just move on when someone says something that judges me or tries to hurt me. It doesn’t matter what they think and maybe they do have a positive intent. 🙂 Thanks for the post!

  • A very honest and thoughtful post, thankyou! I really like the idea that people often don’t mean to be jerks, but sometimes do jerkish things. xox

  • I had to repost this article (http://littleghost.co.za/?p=325) – fantastic stuff. I think I feel like I’m often caught on the other end of this. Like the way I speak to people always gets misinterpreted, possibly because of my mannerisms… or my expressions. But I really appreciate the reminder that that is often the case with other people too.
    Thanks so much for the post!

  • I’ve always done the same, but I never had a name for it! Great post and great philosophy!

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