“I am Firm; You are Obstinate; S/he is a Pig-headed Fool.” The Way We Sometimes See ‘Me’ and ‘Thee’ Differently.
(Shortened/improved version of article originally published Oct. 2022)
“I have reconsidered the matter; you have changed your mind; he has gone back on his word.” — Bertrand Russell
Isn’t it interesting how we can see the very same behaviors far differently depending on whether we are focusing on ourselves vs. others when we make a judgment about those behaviors? The “I-You-S/he” statement noted above and others like it are witty in a sense but also speak to the way many (most?) of us see our own behaviors as being more benevolent and defensible than those of others.
It was philosopher Bertrand Russell who voiced the above example of this phenomenon back in a 1948 BBC broadcast. Consequently, it has become known as “Russell’s Conjugation” because the format, in a clever way, mimics a grammatical conjugation of an irregular verb. It’s also known as “emotive conjugation” because of the feelings that are the underpinnings of seeing the same actions quite differently and in the context of self vs. others.
There have been variations of this theme that predate Russell’s articulation of it on the BBC, such as the old maxim which suggests that whether someone is considered to be a “freedom fighter” or a “terrorist” depends on who is writing the history. The actions, the violence, the potential collateral damage might be the same, but the words obviously mean very different things based on the viewpoint and biases of the observer.
It’s often difficult to separate the story from the storyteller.
Comedian George Carlin once addressed a similar perceptual blurring of the lines between “me and thee” with his classic gag: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”
And in the political world, especially in an election year, we encounter these rhetorical differentiators regularly. My party proposes a “stimulus package” bill, but I consider your party’s similar bill to be “reckless spending.” All it takes is a shift of perspective and a slight leap of inference.
This “me and thee” plays out in the workplace when we create opinions — often based on assumptions — about the intentions and impact of others: other people, other groups, other departments, etc. An example: I am detail-oriented; You are a perfectionist; S/he gets lost in the weeds. The behaviors are similar or the same but there is a different framing of the intention and impact.
Here are some other workplace examples of this emotive conjugation, which by the way, is technically not considered to be a cognitive bias but instead is a form of fallacy. Do you recognize any of these in your own thoughts and perceptions of self and others?
- I am self-confident; You have a high opinion of yourself; S/he is arrogant.
- I am prudent; You are cautious; S/he is risk averse.
- I am candid; You are sometimes overly frank; S/he is clueless about others’ feelings.
- I am inspirational; You can stimulate others; S/he manipulates others.
- I am a team player; You go along with the group; S/he lacks principles and avoids conflict.
- I drive for results; You are numbers driven; S/he prioritizes outcomes ahead of people.
- I exhibit positivity; You often see the bright side of things; S/he wears rose-colored glasses.
- I sometimes delay actions to ensure success; You procrastinate; S/he suffers from paralysis by analysis.
- I am action-oriented; You are hasty; S/he is impulsive.
- I’m even-keeled; You are laid back; S/he is aloof.
- I guide subordinates; You step in when you see a need to; S/he micro-manages.
- I am customer-focused; You are customer-responsive; S/he gives away the store.
- I am fastidious; You are fussy; S/he is a nitpicker.
- I am witty; You can sometimes get a laugh; S/he is a clown.
I think you’ll agree those are very different and I think amusing ways of describing what are essentially the same behaviors or traits. It’s amusing — at least to me — because of how the creative use of language can either sanctify or demonize.
As you read the list, perhaps upon honest reflection you recognized your own complicity in one or more of the examples. I know I’ve been guilty of a few of those emotive conjugations over the course of my career.
In truth, we are often more generous when viewing our own behaviors than when we judge others’ behaviors. Anais Nin, an early 20th-century French novelist, once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
The ego component of self-perception can act as a prism instead of a lens, distorting and coloring what we perceive.
In the workplace, those sometimes-flawed perceptions of others can have a bearing on managers who evaluate employees in performance reviews or who have conversations with other leaders about promotions or leadership potential. Is “Cindy” seen as someone who is action-oriented or is she seen as someone who acts impulsively? Hmm…
Thus, promotions and careers can sometimes be boosted or blocked based on whether Cindy’s behaviors are perceived as being like me or being like thee.
Part of the reason we sometimes see others less charitably than how we see ourselves is that we have access — imperfect as it is — to the motives for our own behaviors. But we can’t see the motives of others, only their outward behaviors.
We All Rationalize Some Behaviors…
As an executive coach and a leader myself, I’ve known many leaders over the years whom I consider to be “micro-managers” but I cannot recall a single one of them who would describe themselves that way. They would have what they considered to be good reasons for having to manage, um, “closely.” Examples of their rationale would be:
- “I’ve got some new or inept people on the team I manage so I have to make many day-to-day decisions myself. I’m not in a position to delegate much of anything.”
- “My boss is a micro-manager herself and expects me to know all of the details and rationale behind any of my team’s decisions so I need to be involved at a very tactical level and sometimes have to override the group. It’s just the way it is…”
Sometimes this stuff is factual, but sometimes peoples’ “self-talk” rationalizes and deludes themselves and others. Yet, those managers will consider some of their colleagues to be micro-managers but “Not Me.” No indeed. Not me…
And sometimes a helicopter leadership style results in a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you don’t trust the team to make good choices, guess what? They don’t make good choices because the boss is there to backstop.
And groups can also fall into the me-and-thee trap — it doesn’t just occur at the individual level. It can create a negative stereotype of another group or department that creates bad feelings and can get in the way of collaboration. And it gets in the way of results.
What Can You Do About The Emotive Conjugation Phenomenon?
This “me and thee” dynamic, then, is not just a Seinfeldish “interesting but trivial” phenomenon, it’s a thing. It has consequences. And now that you know what it is and have a language for it, you can use its strange logic to create new self-insights and/or adopt countermeasures to avoid its potential pitfalls. Here are some action ideas:
- Know thyself. It’s the foundational principle of Emotional Intelligence.
- Don’t assume you know the intentions of others.
- Don’t easily succumb to a confirmation bias when presented with new points of information that support what we think we already know about someone and their motives/intentions. Be open to data points that suggest a different conclusion.
- Practice empathy. Empathy is not about trying to embrace the emotions of another or putting yourself in another’s shoes, it’s about simply trying to understand the emotions of another.
- Don’t pile on when others start playing the “they” game, especially if “we” occasionally demonstrate some of the same behaviors. Challenge others (respectfully, of course) when something sounds like it might be an unfair generalization of a motive or intention.
Of course, since I am the one who wrote this piece, I’m sure it was seen as thought-provoking. If you had published it, it would likely be seen as somewhat plausible. If S/he had published it, it would be seen as pedantic.
About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and former leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his six young granddaughters. In addition to his 40+ years experience as a leader, consultant, and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote many thought leadership pieces for DDI when he was there. He also wrote a business column for 12 years. His recent commentaries can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.