Don’t Tell Me What You Think of Me

Over at the Anxiety blog at The New York Times Tim Kreider gives voice to a common fear, that of finding out what other people really, really think of us:

I’ve often thought that the single most devastating cyberattack a diabolical and anarchic mind could design would not be on the military or financial sector but simply to simultaneously make every e-mail and text ever sent universally public. It would be like suddenly subtracting the strong nuclear force from the universe; the fabric of society would instantly evaporate, every marriage, friendship and business partnership dissolved. Civilization, which is held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions and white lies, would collapse in an apocalypse of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces and bankruptcies, scandals and resignations, blood feuds, litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets and lingering ill will…. Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side. There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads.

Kreider is on the money here, of course. The thought of finding out how others refer to us in our absence, how even those who have most cause to adore us still do not so unreservedly, is enough to fill any reasonable human’s heart with dread. That terror generally finds its grounding both in an overly optimistic assessment of our worth and in an unrealistic desire to not rest content till we have attained a suitably high position in the ranking of the ‘rest.’ As Bertrand Russell noted in opening his chapter on ‘Fear of Public Opinion’ in The Conquest of Happiness:

Very few people can be happy unless on the whole their way of life and their outlook on the world is approved by those with whom they have social relations, and more especially with whom they live.

As a personally memorable instance of a variant of this behavior, after I received a teaching evaluation in which twenty-four out of twenty-five students answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Would you recommend this instructor to other students?’ I spent a considerable amount of time during my next lecture tormenting myself wondering about the identity of the exception to the rule. (And like Kreider, I’ve read emails not meant for my eyes in which friends of mine have expressed considerably unflattering opinions of me; some of those people are still my friends.)

I have long tried to insulate myself from the disappointment of the discovery that I’m not universally adored and the crushing horror of universal loathing by ceaseless repetition of the mantra that no one quite likes or dislikes me as much as I might imagine. This reminder of the ‘golden mean‘ of public opinion only has limited effectiveness; like the folks I refer to above, I retreat a little too easily into delusional comforts.

Addendum 6/24/2013: A discussion with David Post on Facebook suggests to me that my use of ‘reasonable’ in ‘..any reasonable human’s heart..” is confusing. I’m going to leave it up there but it really should just read ‘..human’s heart..”.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Me What You Think of Me

  1. 24 out of 25? I’d love that. (thankfully, we have no torment, we don’t see evals until well after we turn in our final grades)

    I sleep easier at night assuming that others must think I’m a hack… 🙂

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for the comment. I mentioned that evaluation because it was one of the best I would ever receive – normal service has now been restored! 🙂

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