The Allure Of Other People’s Lives: Why We Can’t Mind Our Own Business

You never know what goes on behind closed doors.

My mother said this often when I was growing up, usually after learning something unexpected about an acquaintance, co-worker, celebrity–whomever.

The thought always frightened me and I often studied friends and strangers with suspicion, wondering: “what do you do that no one knows about?”

Perhaps they did drugs. Or their house was unimaginably filthy. Or their family had nightly, ritualistic fist-fights. I usually imagined abuse of some sort, and I think this is what my mother was alluding to.

As I’ve gotten older and society has become so open, I’m often aghast when I learn what people do in their private lives, from the obscene to the bizarre. And I’ve only grown more interested.

But why do I care about what other people are doing? Why do people care about what I’m doing?

Why can’t we all just mind our own business?

You Won’t Believe What He Did!

Talking behind each other’s backs is hard-wired into our brains, so it seems. Where there are groups of people, there’s gossip.

Anthropologists think gossip is the glue that bonds people together. We also use it to exclude and isolate people who aren’t contributing to the well-being of the group. Think of a group of hunter-gatherers like an ancient version of an office. There’s always that one berry picker who doesn’t pull her weight, taking breaks while the others fill their baskets. Gossip may be a way to motivate her to try harder. If she doesn’t, she’ll end up alone.

In other words, we bond over shared frustrations and sometimes hatred. It’s a survival tactic. If we align with other people, we have a better chance of surviving. If we tick off the group and become the subject of gossip, we may just die.

Underlying gossip, of course, is judgment. And this common human habit also serves a purpose: it’s much easier to judge than it is to understand.

Who Does He Think He Is?

We judge because we don’t have time to figure out why everyone around us is doing whatever it is they do. We don’t have time to figure out their motivations.

It’s easier for us to conclude someone is being rude to us because they’re a jerk than it is to figure out why they may be acting like a jerk in that moment. It’s a difference between situational versus personality attributions; the former is the understanding kind, the latter the judgey one.

In order to truly understand someone else, we have to know the actual motivation behind their actions, which is a very complicated thing. In the absence of that, we draw our own conclusions. So being judgmental is just plain lazy.

As part of this laziness, we speculate, we offer opinions based on our speculations, we condemn and demean based on those opinions.

But we never actually look behind that closed door.

He Should Be More Like Us

People like to tell me the intimate details of their lives. I have one of those faces, apparently. Or maybe they can sense I’ll actually listen.

The other day, a perfect stranger told me about his lifestyle choices. He has a kid he barely knows, but never wanted kids at all. He divorced his wife after seven years of marriage. He has no interest in getting married again, but has had lots of girlfriends.

He wisely acknowledged two things about himself: he doesn’t want to negotiate every decision in his life with another person, and he’s selfish. Good for him, I thought, for knowing this about himself. He knows what he can give to another person, and what he can’t. Most of us don’t understand ourselves this well.

But people judge him, brutally, for his lifestyle choices. They think he should live like them, and if he doesn’t, something is wrong with him. “Like them” means the heterosexual, nuclear family. Mom, Dad, two kids.

I listened to this man explain the “why” behind his choices. It was simple: he just doesn’t want the same things as everyone else.

But the people who judge him don’t ask why. They compare his life to theirs, and determine theirs is better. They isolate him through gossip, because he’s not contributing to society by adhering to its norms. Perhaps their beef is with the fact that he’s not reproducing. Perhaps they feel he’s not doing his share or he has it easy. Unlike them, he’s not struggling through life to support a family, but instead coasts through with freedom and plenty of money and no responsibilities. Regardless, what this man decides to do with his life is still nobody’s business. He’s not hurting anyone; if anything, he’s hurting himself.

But despite all the natural drives that explain gossip and judgment–which make sense–I’m still left wondering why we care how other people live.

With some exceptions, what other people do behind closed doors doesn’t affect us. So are we interested out of morbid curiosity? In general, we’re afraid of what we don’t know–not knowing the private lives of our neighbors is a scary thought if they’re evil people. What about insecurity and jealousy? We have to know that what we’re doing and what we have is better, so we can live with ourselves and, theoretically, be happy.

Perhaps the human habit of “not minding our own business” is a way to measure ourselves. Alone, without anything to compare ourselves to, we’d have no idea how we’re doing. When we pry into the lives of others, we’re really searching ourselves.

YOUR TURN

Why do you think we’re so interested in other people’s lives? Have you ever been the subject of malicious gossip? Have other people ever openly judged your lifestyle choices?

Photo Courtesy Pexels

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