Why the Golden Rule Isn’t Enough

This guest post is by Ali Luke of Aliventures.

You’ve probably come across the Golden Rule before (even if you’ve not heard it called that). It’s often written as:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It’s found in Christianity, but also in many other religions and ethical systems. Most of us would agree that it’s a good rule to live by. You should treat other people in the same way that you’d want them to treat you.

The problem is, it’s not enough.

We’re not all the same

What you like is probably a bit different to what I like.

There are some things we can agree on (I hope!) We could say that:

  • Neither of us like being hurt, mocked or made fun of.
  • We both like people to treat us kindly and compassionately when we’re upset.
  • We both want to be dealt with fairly.

…and so on. The Golden Rule works just fine for all of these.

But problems arise when we don’t agree. For instance:

  • Maybe you love it when friends drop round unexpectedly, but I prefer to be forewarned!
  • Maybe you couldn’t care less about receiving flowers, but I love them.
  • Maybe you enjoy beer, but I can’t stand it.

In these situations, while I might appreciate your intentions, I’d probably rather you didn’t treat me in the way you’d like to be treated.

I’d much rather you treated me how I like to be treated.

Because we live inside our own heads, we often assume that other people think the same and feel the same as we do. Pace and Kyeli from The Connection Revolution do a great job of describing this in their book, The Usual Error, explaining:

We assume that others’ boundaries are the same as ours. We assume that others’ communication styles and personality types are the same as ours. … We assume that others’ bodies have the same physical limitations and thresholds as ours. We assume all kinds of things about other people all the time.

—from Chapter 1 of The Usual Error

It’s not bad that we think this way. It’s just something to be aware of, particularly if you’re struggling in your relationships with other people. Perhaps, instead of treating them just how you would like to be treated, you might need to ask what they would like.

How to figure out what other people want

So how do you know how someone wants to be treated? You could simply ask them, though not everyone is good at putting into words what they want and need.

You could also:

  • Look at how they behave towards you. Generally, they’re probably acting in the same sort of way that they’d want you to act towards them.
  • Pay attention to what they respond well to. Perhaps your friend Joe is really touched when you give him a present, for instance, but your friend Sue isn’t bothered about gifts and instead really values you spending time with her.
  • Notice the times when you get it wrong. Maybe your sister reacts badly when you drop round unexpectedly, or your dad seems annoyed when you correct a grammatical mistake in his email. You might want people do to these things for you, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else feels the same way.

When has the Golden Rule let you down—and what could you do differently next time?

Ali Luke blogs about writing and the writing life over at Aliventures – you can grab the RSS feed here.

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  1. I really think the golden rule applies to how we treat orders, not whether you like or don’t like beer. If society was kinder toward one another, then maybe there wouldn’t be all the conflict there is now.

  2. Hey Ali,

    Agreed with you.

    I think instinctually we all know this, but we never say it. And rarely do we try and find out what others want. I know I’m guilty of this.

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