Why Should We Care What People Think?
“But how will this look?”
Thanksgiving is coming up, bringing families together to celebrate the anniversary of when a boatload of immigrants crossed the Atlantic to settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they proceeded to take jobs and land away from ordinary, working class Americans.
But I’m being petty - which is the opposite of what this holiday is supposed to be about.
The Least Productive Question In the World
For obvious reasons, my family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. The closest Taiwanese equivalent is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is held in August or the eighth month of the lunar calendar. On this holiday, we Taiwanese like to take our flip flops and plastic footstools to the river to stake out spots for an impromptu, hobo-style barbecue.
But no matter what the holiday season, it’s always stressful when extended families come together. We’ve all got our own ways of dealing with this. I can’t speak for Jennie’s side of the family, but there’s one thing my family does that I have no patience for, and it starts with a single question:
“But how will this look?”
This is the question that sets most people off on a path to making one bad decision after another.
Here are some examples taken from our life:
1. What Will People Think
When They See My Wallet?
Here’s a picture of my wallet.
I’ve had it for almost ten years. It looks like it'd been chewed on by a dog for at least that long. It’s too bulky for most of my pockets and I can’t keep coins smaller than quarters or they’ll fall out of the ever-expanding hole.
But it’s my wallet, and I like it.
While I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m both stubborn and a cheapskate, those aren’t the reasons why I still have this wallet. I have this wallet because Jennie bought it for me in Kyoto nearly ten years ago for 1,000 yen ($10). I like the yellow-checkered pattern (or what’s left of it). I like that when I showed it to an old friend from our Kyoto days in Chicago last month, he laughed and remembered the exact store I got it from.
Why should I apologize for the things I like?
A few years ago, I was in the Toronto financial district, about to pay for lunch with a few co-workers. I whipped out my wallet from the inner pocket of my Brooks Brothers jacket.
“That’s your wallet!?” said the sales guy in the Hugo Boss suit.
“Yep,” I said.
“No offense buddy,” he said. “But that’s disgusting. You should invest in a Louis Vuitton.”
“I don’t know,” I said as I paid the tab. “I like it.”
There was no point in arguing, but if I had to explain it in sports terms so that he might've understood - here’s Odell Beckham Jr on Twitter:
2. What Will People Think
Seeing Us At a Bus Stop?
Jennie got rid of her car recently, which means we’re back to using public transit and ride-sharing. This is strange for Los Angeles. Very few people here ride public transit unless it’s the only thing they can afford.
But the neighborhood we live in is actually perfectly situated for public transit. There’s an express line running right past our apartment that takes us to Venice Beach in 20 minutes, Jennie’s office in 30 and downtown L.A. within the hour. There are also four grocery stores and a farmer’s market within a five mile radius - more than accessible by a $5 Lyft ride. We are very “lucky” because early on, we made conscious decisions about where to live and how much space we actually needed.
It was early afternoon on Friday. Jennie and I were waiting at a bus stop in front of a run-down Carl’s Jrs. We were planning to run some errands and get some camping gear for our upcoming trip to Joshua Tree.
Weekend traffic had already picked up. An obnoxiously loud sports car inched by. All that horsepower, no room to run. I watched the middle-aged man in the driver’s seat, and fantasized about sitting across from him at a poker table. His psychological profile must be practically childlike. It’d be like taking candy from a baby.
“I wonder what people think driving past us,” said Jennie, interrupting the royal flush I was on the verge of making.
Here, I saw my opening to quote my favorite character from Game of Thrones:
“A lion, Jennie, doesn’t concern herself with the opinions of the sheep.”
Editor’s note: I rolled my eyes.
3. What Will People Think When
We Turn in Empty Bottles at CVS?
Tap water is completely safe to drink in Los Angeles, but has a strange aftertaste that lies somewhere between chlorine and rust. Our apartment is also a pre-1970s structure and has lead pipes. For those reasons, Jennie and I started buying bottled water from Costco since moving from Boston.
This leaves us with the problem of getting our $0.05 deposits back for our bottles. We drink a LOT of water, so that’s about $10 a month worth of deposits.
Luckily for us, there’s a CVS right next to the Japanese grocery store we shop at that takes bottles. Perfect, I thought. We can get our deposit back without going out of our way.
Jennie was more hesitant. The thought of standing in line at CVS just to get $10 triggered some flashbacks of growing up in poverty.
“I’d do it myself,” I said. “But the limit is 100 bottles a person and they only take bottles on Sunday.”
“It just brings back bad memories.”
“Okay, so what do you want to do? Just throw away $10? Not a great message to send to all the poor kids out there: Ten dollars? No thanks. Too embarrassed.”
“Why aren’t you embarrassed?”
“Because I’m going to do what I want, when I want. What everyone else thinks is irrelevant.”
“Besides,” I added. “Most people are just like you and me - they’re too busy thinking about themselves to worry about anyone else.”
So, What’s the Right Question?
I used examples from our life to illustrate something that we all struggle with. That is, understanding the fine, virtually indistinguishable line between:
What we want
What we think we should want
Do I want an expensive sports car because I enjoy driving and appreciate fine automotive engineering? Or because I think chicks will dig me in this car and that an outward symbol of my success will compensate for my inner feeling of inadequacy?
Do I want a big house because I plan on raising a large family and the price tag is well within my means? Or because I always imagined myself as an owner of a big house that’s the envy of my family, friends and neighbors?
And on and on it goes. For everything.
This is just my personal opinion, but I think the more we think about “how something looks,” the less likely we are to end up making the optimal decision.
Because the right question should always be: