Why care what others think?


Most people believe that we shouldn’t care what others think of us. If we do then our time is spent pursuing other people’s praise and avoiding blame rather than going our own way. We will then always be reacting to others rather than being ‘pro-active’ (What’s wrong with the word ‘active’? I don’t know. I’m just going along with others).

My own view is that every action is really a reaction to something. I wrote about that here. What ‘being your own man’ means in that case is not clear. The idea that you are the author of your personality is like the idea you could give birth to yourself or that you could pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Personally I think it is natural and healthy to want people to like us. If we really didn’t care what others thought we would all dress in our most comfortable clothes, traipsing around town in an old dressing gown and slippers like some demented old person. I know there are some people who dress like this to impress others but that doesn’t count. That’s caring.

People would also wear ankle socks with sandals, which presently only big-framed American men and skinny little Japanese girls do, probably because in Fort Lauderdale and Nagoya this is not considered a crime against fashion. I would like to wear socks with sandals but don’t have the nerve. Whenever I see someone in socks and sandals I am torn between laughing out loud or shaking them vigorously by the hand and saying ‘Well done! Good for you!’

If women didn’t care what others thought they would never wear the high heel shoes that cause back problems and bunions and which risk a sprained ankle at every flight of steps. Equally, Japanese women wouldn’t wear kimonos that force them to shuffle around like shackled escapees from a chain gang. It is rational to want to be found attractive and enhancing your looks in uncomfortable ways makes perfect sense.

It isn’t only in our choice of clothes that we try to impress others. This morning I lay awake thinking of a conversation I had had the previous afternoon with a friend. I had been a bit drunk and wondered if I should email her to apologise for having been so boring. I vaguely remember going on and on about one of my pet subjects. In the end I decided not to apologise, that way she might think me the kind of person who doesn’t worry about such things (when really I do). My decision not to apologise was therefore not based on a cavalier attitude to her opinion but its opposite: my desire for her to think me cavalier. Things become complicated when you care what others think.

But can you really stop caring what others think? After all, if you really didn’t care then it wouldn’t bother you if your breath smelled. Since you wouldn’t notice it, then what could it possibly matter to you that others do?

Well, one reason is that people might start avoiding you if your breath smelled or you dressed like your granddad. Not caring what others think would then have consequences for your emotional life. You might end up isolated and lonely. Unless you are a sociopath, psychopath or autistic and the prospect of being friendless doesn’t worry you then you might want to start taking other people’s views about you into consideration.

Of course, caring too little or too much are both bad strategies. It just isn’t pleasant to spend time with someone who couldn’t care less what you think, but neither is it enjoyable to be with someone who tailors their every action to please you. It would be like sharing your life with a faithful dog. At some point their humbleness would become too much and you would find yourself saying something cruel.

One solution might be to care what people think but not to let this affect your behaviour. Then you would just act as you would have done anyway, regardless of their opinion, while still caring about it. Yet is this just an example of not really caring?

Maybe no one should spend too much time worrying about such things. After all, wanting to be liked, despite being a strong human urge is not the only human urge. Wanting to tell the truth is also strong, as is self-interest, both of which can run counter to pleasing others.

I see I’m beginning to sound like the awful character in The Beatles’ song Strawberry Fields who hedges and qualifies all his comments until he finally says nothing other than ‘Somehow it all works out’. But if you find yourself lying in bed worrying about what you said the previous day then clearly it hasn’t all worked out.


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