It’s usually not until we come up against something shocking that we are provoked into asking questions like “How can they like that?” or “Why would someone do that?”
We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions. — Ian Percy
Other people’s behaviour can seem strange and puzzling. Some people seem to genuinely enjoy thugby rugby. Strange but true.
Perhaps it is more remarkable that we don’t find more behaviour puzzling. Or perhaps this just is testimony to our lack of imagination — or the time and space to pursue what we are most interested in. Perhaps if we had more time and space lots of people would be doing lots of different things. And we’d be puzzled a lot more of the time.
Perhaps it is that we don’t notice. We tend to live busy lives, which means that we focus on our most immediate concerns. This is entirely sensible, but it might mean that we don’t notice how many strange things happen around us.
And we get used to the way of doing things that we grew up with. I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the weekend and Raj Patel reminded us of Karl Polanyi (in The Great Transformation) pointing out that it is a very strange idea that we can turn land and time into money. This idea took a long time and a good deal of violence to get accepted.
So it tends to take something quite different to get our attention. The most extreme example I personally know is of a schizophrenic man who had times where he would run down the street calling out “Jesus” to keep the demons away from him.
It’s usually not until we come up against something shocking that we are provoked into asking questions like, “How can they like that?” or “Why would someone do that?”
It has been at the times when I’ve been able to ask this kind of question, and I have had the time to explore it with the other person, that my life has become more interesting. I learned from one person that their attraction to cake decorating had something to do with the tininess of it, and I have learned that some people feel fully alive only when confronted with some kind of physical challenge and that this can lead to a life long pursuit of a martial art.
I have usually found that when I have had the time and space to listen to another person that their behaviour comes to make sense to me: they have good reason for doing what they do.
This isn’t always the case. Sometimes I don’t really know the reason why I do something, and sometimes people can’t articulate — or don’t know — why they engage in a particular behaviour. It may simply be a habit that we have acquired and have forgotten how or why. I press the button for the pedestrian light several times. Why? I haven’t a clue.
Sometimes with a little reflection we may find out why we do what we do. We may find that something is related to a childhood experience. For instance, I don’t dry cutlery. I don’t mind doing the washing up, but I don’t like the drying up much, and I just won’t wipe the cutlery. Why? Because it was an unpleasant experience when I was a child: I couldn’t do it quickly enough, I felt clumsy and confused and embarrassed. And I really can’t be bothered to change my feelings about this — I’d rather just not wipe the damn cutlery.
It has been a curious experience for me to get closer to another through incomprehension. Sometimes when I and another are exploring together why one or both of us does something, we feel closer to each other. This has happened to me even if I don’t understand why they find something attractive (like cake decorating or rugby) or even if one or both of us doesn’t understand why we do what we do. This can be light-hearted (why do we press the pedestrian button several times, anyway?) or more serious (why is it that that thing you do just bugs me so much?!).
I have found that listening attentively to another can lead to our developing a deeper relationship — even if we don’t understand each other. I think this means that our relationships are more emotional than rational.
I’m wondering if this is your experience too. Have you had the experience of another person’s behaviour making sense once they explained their reason(s) to you? Have you had the experience of growing closer to someone despite your differences and disagreements? I would love to hear your experience in the comments.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by