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How to not care about what other people think

Girl doing a hand-stand in a public place

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It is an advice given often — to not care about what other people think. Indeed being unduly concerned about other people’s opinions can be a real stumbling block in any endeavour, a real dampener in any situation. But what does it really mean to not care?

It cannot mean that you disregard other opinions completely. For starters, you need to consider at least those opinions which have persuaded you to take up the endeavour in question. Perhaps, you want to change your career from Pharmacy to Coding or from Finance to Design or from Tech to Music. Maybe you want to run your first marathon at the age of 40. Or you want to take a sabbatical from work. Surely, you need to consider opinions of people who might have supported you or suggested to you that these were good ideas. You also need to listen to people with whom you are close, as you would end up relying on them to provide support. What if you are faced with a momentum-killing injury after months of training and continuous improvement in your times? Or you botch that big job interview after doing great at bootcamp? Or you fail at your first major live concert? Then you do need to care about the views of your close ones. They are the ones who will listen to you, give you suggestions for the way forward and help you out of your situation. Then, there may be people who are the audience of your endeavour — an employer, a collaborator, fellow runners or music fans. You certainly need to care what they think.

In a general social setting, politeness is a common courtesy which we extend to others and expect in return. We cannot brush off other people’s opinions with bad grace. Imagine being at the receiving end of such behaviour. In fact, even if the other person is quite polite in hearing us out and offers a thoughtful remark, we can quickly become conscious of the small hesitation, the slight reluctance and the minor differences in our points of view. It really depends, but on an especially bad day, we may start harbouring misgivings about whether they are judging us in some way. Before becoming a father, I noticed that even the slightest pause in congratulating a friend who was expecting or had become a parent, would result in an icy cold wave emanate from them. Strangely enough, after becoming a dad myself, I could not help but feel snappy at friends for their ever-so-slightly feeble congratulations. Society, culture and specific situations also shape our social interactions. A friend of mine who was hunting for a single room accommodation in Bangalore, was faced with questions about his age and marital status from an elderly prospective landlady. Upon putting forward his most polite performance and answering that he was 32 and unmarried, the landlady said, “What a shame!”

We would like not to care what the offending party thinks, but we have to absorb and negotiate these social situations. Perhaps we may think that it is better to adopt a more cautious approach and seek out as few opinions from others as possible — you know, engage only in small talk and don’t venture beyond the weather and sports. But weather and sports get old after the first few times you meet someone. Maybe then we should be careful to only cultivate like-minded people with whom we share values, with whom we feel at par status-wise and who are in similar life situations as we are. But there is the problem of confirmation bias. If we only ever seek opinions which are aligned to ours, then we shut ourselves from perspectives which may be uncomfortable at first, but which are in reality, quite bonafide and worthy of consideration. Opinions can become dogma if they are not subjected to review, and opinions can only change when they are confronted with alternative views.

All this seems pretty reasonable, but what of the sting that comes from a thoughtless remark. It really does feel that we cannot shake it off so easily, as the offending remark wedges itself in our memory and constantly rears its head in the middle of our thoughts when we least expect it. It is so strange that we tell friends and ourselves to not care about what other people think, and yet we are compelled from within to confront those views. It appears that to not care what other people think is a pretty difficult endeavour. But what does it really mean to not care? Not caring about other people’s views is really an act of rationalisation. To not care, is to first assimilate the alien opinion, then to contrast it with our own and finally to find a graceful reconciliation between the two. We have to find that “out” which lets us accept the seemingly contradictory opinion, and yet makes it inapplicable to us. The landlady probably got married when she was 18 and her husband about 20. And being a stranger, she really does not have any idea about your romantic life or inclinations. Perhaps the skeptics at your finance gig have no feel for design whatsoever, and therefore cannot conceive how one of them could ever make a go of it.

We have to agree to disagree, and accept with empathy that the bearer of the opposing opinion may be inevitably drawn to it owing to their values and experiences. Or we simply have to brush it aside as merely thoughtless, and move on. Or we have to accept and adopt the alien opinion and harmonise the ensuing contradictions in our values and beliefs. In the end, not caring is actually to care and then to let it rest. Reflect on all the occasions where you have successfully moved past a disagreeable opinion, advice or remark. If you still harbour some resentment to it, then perhaps you haven’t really moved on. But if you feel fine, you will remember how much you were affected by it then. Yet now you can feel comfortable with the past disagreement, knowing why it did not apply to you or how you learned from it. So go ahead and do your own thing. And don’t care about what other people think!