Louder than Words

Today on The Writer's Almanac, Garrison Keillor reads a poem called In the Coffee Shop by Carl Dennis. I see the poem as highlighting our inability or unwillingness to appreciate the motives of others. An excerpt:

The big smile the waitress gives you May be a true expression of her opinion Or may be her way to atone for glowering A moment ago at a customer who slurped his coffee Just the way her cynical second husband slurped his.

Think of the meager tip you left the taxi driver After the trip from the airport, how it didn't express Your judgment about his service but about the snow That left you feeling the earth a tundra Only the frugal few could hope to cross.

One might see the actions described above as a sort of correspondence bias. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it:

We tend to see far too direct a correspondence between others' actions and personalities. When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are "an angry person". But when you yourself kick the vending machine, it's because the bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your lunch money for the second day in a row. Surely, you think to yourself, anyone would kick the vending machine, in that situation.

We attribute our own actions to our situations, seeing our behaviors as perfectly normal responses to experience. But when someone else kicks a vending machine, we don't see their past history trailing behind them in the air. We just see the kick, for no reason we know about, and we think this must be a naturally angry person - since they lashed out without any provocation.

Expats must grapple with an exaggerated version of this tendency often. When living in a foreign land, great is the temptation to attribute the (bad) actions of indigenous others to some national disposition: That icy Mädel spurned my advances last night at the club--what typical German brusqueness!