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What do we get wrong about the Golden Rule?

by Dinsa Sachan

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I would like to believe I treat everyone with kindness and empathy. But people don’t always agree.

Case in point: While texting with a friend recently, I casually mentioned her ex. She got riled up. I try not to take offense when friends talk about my former lovers, so I was shocked my friend asked me to “mind my own business.”

A second case in point: I like phone conversations, and love when people call me. When my partner traveled abroad early into our relationship, I would occasionally ring him. That irked him. I’ve now realized he isn’t a fan of phone conversations—he prefers texts, emojis, pictures, and voice notes.

Most people grew up with the old adage: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Best known as the “golden rule”, it simply means you should treat others as you’d like to be treated.

After talking with experts, I realized that I may be applying the golden rule too stringently and that it can help to be flexible and learn where exceptions might work better.

A notion with solid roots

“There is a lot of good, if emerging, scientific work suggesting people have an innate sense of fairness built into them and that the golden rule captures much of that innate moral sense,” says Kristen Monroe, director of the University of California Irvine Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality. “A lot of people instinctively follow it.”

The platitude can be viewed as an exercise in empathy. “The golden rule is steeped in empathy: the basic premise of do to the other as you want done to you or even what you hope for others is what you hope for yourself,” says Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. “That actually means attending to other people.”

The golden rule ultimately inspires us to treat others with respect, kindness, and fairness. “I don’t like to be kept waiting, so I try not to be late,” says Monroe. “I don’t like to be lied to or deceived so I try not to do it, even if it might be more convenient to be just a few minutes late or tell a white lie occasionally.”

Few rules are one-size-fits-all

Like many principles of morals and manners, the golden rule is not absolute.

Sometimes, another variation of the notion (often referred to as the Platinum Rule) may be more appropriate: treat others as they wish to be treated. “If you assume people know best what is best for them, then if their preferences differ from yours, you should do what they prefer,” says Monroe.

Monroe says she’s learned this the hard way—she wanted her mother to move into her home during her remaining years, but her mother refused. “Part of her desire, I believe, was independence, part was the house she and my father had designed themselves, part was probably her desire not to impose on me,” says Monroe. Eventually, she decided to respect her mother’s wish. “So if I respected her independence I had to do what she wanted, and visit her often but not pressure her to move into my home, which I would have wanted and which I thought would have been better for her,” she says.

Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles, says people can better use the golden rule with discretion if they understand how empathy works. “Empathy is the key bridge that helps you tune into your own experiences and how you’d like to be treated in similar situations involving others,” she says. “It also helps you distinguish between the similarities and differences between your and other people’s situations.”

She says “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” assumes that people’s experiences are alike—but that is simply not true. For example, if a colleague asks how you’re doing, you might want to launch into a colorful explanation of dilemmas, but they might just want to hear “fine, thank you.” You may appreciate details about people’s personal lives, but others may feel differently.

Raymond pulls an example from her practice. One of her clients held a grand surprise party for his wife on their wedding anniversary. When they sat down for dinner, she didn’t look pleased. The client gave his wife the kind of surprise he would have expected. While his efforts were well-meaning, he didn’t realize his wife enjoys celebrations when she is actually involved in the planning. “She was expected to play out his fantasy of being taken care of,” says Raymond. “But her idea of ‘being taken care of’ would have been to include her in the experience so that they could enjoy togetherness.”

Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist, says the golden rule needs to be exercised with caution when interacting with people from different cultures. “There are times when cultural and personal sensitivities require a person to be treated in ways that honor their unique way of being in the world,” says Hokemeyer. “You’d never serve an Orthodox Jew [a plate of] shrimp (it’s not considered kosher) even though you think it’s the most divine food on the plate, or tell the unvarnished truth to a person who suffers from a mental health disorder.”

In other words, respect boundaries. (Note to self: don’t bring up people’s exes without testing the waters first.)

So how do others want to be treated?

“Knowing the times that the golden rule may not necessarily apply requires a level of self-awareness that would alert you when ‘what you wish were done unto you’ isn’t necessarily what someone else might want in a given situation,” explains New York City-based therapist Katie Krimer, MS, LMSW.

If you’re confused as to how another wants to be treated, Durvasula suggests sticking to the plain old golden rule “None of us are mind-readers, we don’t know how people wish to be treated. As such, the golden rule is a good barometer of what we think decent treatment is.”

Still, it’s important to recognize when to draw the line: try not to fall into a trap of co-dependence where you keep making sacrifices but don’t get anything back.

Artwork by CHRIS MARTZ

Dinsa Sachan

Dinsa Sachan writes for Fast Company, Playboy, and Scientific American Mind, among others. She also edits Nucleus Mag, a weekly science and culture newsletter.

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