Viranga Perera

Postdoc at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab


Do you think that you should not judge other people? Go ahead and take a moment to think about it.

Now, are you on Tinder? 

It’s ok. 91% of people judge other people. The only ones who don’t are enlightened individuals called toddlers. 

We accept judging. We might even say that it’s necessary for our well-being. Heck, judging people might help us find our soulmate. That’s big! 

When it comes to judging there are several types. An example is one that saves your best friend from having to give you the It-Wasn’t-A-Good-Fit-For-You speech for the 25th time. However, I’d like to discuss a type of judging that is more automatic and is more alarming. Let me give you a few examples to illustrate.

Last week I went to the Coffee and Conversation Hour here at Arizona State University. I had received emails stating that this was where “domestic and international students gather to chat and build cross-cultural connections over a cup of coffee.” Sounded nice, so I went. I spotted the coffee and I walked straight towards it since as a grad student coffee is an essential part of my sustenance. A lady, who I suppose works for the International Student Center, was setting up the coffee. I said hello and she said hello but she gave me a confused look. I didn’t think much of it as I poured myself some coffee and looked for the creamer. At that point someone else had approached the table from behind me and the lady directed her attention to that person. From the way she was speaking, I thought she was talking to a child and I wondered what a kid was doing in line for coffee. As I turned around, I was surprised to find an undergrad. The lady pointed at some cups and told him that “those are ex-tra.” It was the way she said “ex-tra” that caught my annoyance. She made sure to pronounce each syllable very carefully with an awkward pause in the middle. I really hoped that she knew he was just an international student, not five.

The pronunciation of “extra” might not seem like a big deal but it is a subtle indication of you are different from me. “Ex-tra” says that because we are different, I will alter my speech for your benefit. This is an example of our automatic judgments getting the best of us. However, it doesn’t just apply to the way that people speak but also to the way that people look.

A few months ago, my sister was at a store looking for a dress to wear to one of her friend’s weddings. She had picked a dress that she liked but wasn’t quite sure if it was good, so she went to the checkout counter to ask. “Do you think this dress would work for a wedding?” my sister asked. The lady at the counter responded, “Well, it’s ok for an American wedding but I’m not sure about an Indian one.” Overhearing this a few yards away, I was pissed. So, I tweeted about it. What made that lady say that? My sister isn’t Indian so why assume that she was based solely on how she looked? Why assume that a dress that is appropriate for an “American” wedding would not work for an Indian one? Out of curiosity, what would that lady define to be an “American” wedding? Would Darius Rucker and Beth Leonard be invited? How about Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka?

It is not only your accent that generates special treatment but also the way that you look. You can sound like a foreigner, which makes it proper to talk to you like you were a child. You can look Indian, which makes it acceptable to assume that you should dress differently. This automatic judging behavior is by no means unique to a certain group of people doing it to another group. This form of judging is rampant.

For example, in high school I volunteered for the Rose Parade in Pasadena. After one of the events I was waiting for my ride home. As I waited, a lady approached me and asked me a question in Spanish. I wasn’t quite sure what she said so I responded as best as I could with “No hablo español.” She repeated it back to me with what I could only describe as revulsion and disappointment on her face. I got the feeling that she could not believe that someone who looked like me didn’t speak Spanish. I wonder if it would have helped if I could have told her that I was born on the opposite side of the planet.

It would be all too easy for me to write a blog post and say that we should stop doing this type of judging. It isn’t that easy to do. Instead, I think we can try to be more aware of it. Hopefully, over time we can keep it in check. For now, go out and say hello when you meet someone. Ask them “How are you?” or “Kohomadha?” or “¿Cómo estás?” If you don’t know what to say, just smile, because that, says it all.