Hold that judgment

Geetha Durairajan

taxi I was coming back to Hyderabad from a seminar and I had booked a call taxi to pick me up at the airport. I saw the missed calls from the driver and took the call as soon as I landed. The taxi driver’s voice was slurred and a little unclear! I immediately assumed the worst! I told myself: “Gosh! It is late in the evening and I am in trouble! Either this must be a very old man, or he must be drunk or must be a chewer of tobacco or paan.” I resigned myself to my fate, sent up a few prayers and told myself: “Let me hope and pray I don’t have problems on the way and that I get home in one piece!” All this without even having met the poor man!

With these thoughts I walked out of the airport and reached the place where the driver could pick me up. When I met him I realized how wrong I had been in my judgment and felt terrible and full of remorse. Luckily, I had not said a word to the driver except to tell him that I would meet him at a particular point, and that I was wearing a sari, and had two suitcases (to help identify me). All my ‘hope I reach home in one piece’ had remained a dialogue with myself.

My driver was a healthy robust man in his late 40s, very considerate and helpful. When I reached my flat (I live on the first floor and there is no lift) he even carried my two suitcases up the flight of stairs and then left with a smile for the tip I gave him for being helpful. His slur, or rather, slightly inarticulate speech was because he had a cleft palate. He could not articulate certain sounds properly, that was all! The man was neither old, nor drunk, nor addicted to paan!

Why had I assumed the worst? Why do we work with suspicion first and then move to trust? Does it change depending on whether we know the person? All these thoughts kept going through my mind and I felt more and more miserable about the huge error in judgment!

According to law even a criminal is innocent until proved guilty and that too, beyond reasonable doubt! But I realized that this kind of acceptance of ‘innocence’ seems to be applied only to our relatives and friends. We do not give the benefit of doubt to strangers. If the stranger happens to be someone who does physical work, who is not highly educated, who has a ‘blue collar’ and not a ‘white collar job’ then woe betide that person! For a friend or a colleague or ‘someone famous or in a good position’, we go out of our way to make excuses and find explanations. With the rest of the world, we assume the worst.

If I had a child with a stammer or a speech problem I would expect everyone to understand this and be sympathetic; I would expect them to make adjustments, and also, treat that child as normal. Chances are I would go battling with cudgels for that child. But when it became someone else, some ‘other’ person’ I judged first and thought later.

The worst part of it was that it never occurred to me that the stammer or slight slur in speech could be because of a physiological defect! The first judgmental thought was: Slurred speech! Taxi driver! Probably sozzled!”

The judgment was bad and the generalization about taxi drivers, worse! Why do we judge the world only from our perspective? We need to learn to see the world from the shoes or body of the person who inhabits it before we judge them.

I felt ‘worser’, if I am allowed to use a word like that because I keep talking and writing about learner-centredness! In the bargain I seem to have forgotten all about human-centredness! But before I continue, I would also like to do so with a word of caution! This ‘need to take someone on trust’ does not mean that the world is made up only of ‘good’ people and that we must trust everyone. Not at all! Every one of us will have at least two stories to tell about how we have been hoodwinked by someone or the other. Someone approaches us with what seems like a genuine tale of woe, we part with some money and never hear from that person again. Similarly, someone offers us what seems like a genuine club membership and later we find that we have been taken for a long ride. I don’t have to write about chit funds and promises of money quadrupling in a year!

This kind of ‘cheating’ goes on and we have to be very wary. That is not what I am writing about here. I am writing about judgments based on first appearances, or in this case, the first voice heard. We do need to teach our children to be wary of strangers, to not take everyone on trust; at the same time, we also need to teach them to watch, observe, interact, and then make a judgment.

There are many kinds of people in the world; the charlatans as well as the ones with a cleft palate. There are those who help strangers as well as those who use people and drop them. We need to value the former and at the same time, be wary of the latter.

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.