Are you comfortable with who you are and what you have accomplished? Sometimes it is dissatisfaction with ourselves that makes us judge others unfairly. Make sure that you are not projecting onto others the least attractive traits you perceive in yourself. Are you comfortable with change? You may find it difficult to think the best of others if you are made uneasy by a new development—at work, for instance. Whether you like it or not, here you are with a new boss or a new office partner. Do you feel threatened? Does this color your perception of the person involved? Are you making him or her threatening in your mind for no objective reason at all? Are you falling prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy? Try to evaluate the person apart from the situation. Give him or her a fair chance. As a result, you will give the situation a chance to work.

There is no doubt that thinking the best of others can boost the quality of your life. Among other things, it will help you establish rapport with many people who otherwise would remain strangers. Be careful, however, not to overdo it. Thinking the best of others can make us dangerously vulnerable. Your optimism should not be unthinking but rather tempered by the right dose of realism. Having a positive attitude doesn't mean that you should trust just anybody with your life. I do wish that I had been more cautious at various times in my life. And yet thinking the best of my fellow human beings remains a very important part of who I am.

So, when it comes to people, have great expectations: it will be good for your soul, and it may touch theirs. At the same time, don't discount the possibility of unpleasant surprises. If people let you down, don't rush to judgment, but don't disregard the disenchanting evidence, either. Sad as it may be, accept that your opinion and feelings are changing. At some point, you may decide to tell the people who have disappointed you about your discontent. Be frank. No matter what their reaction to your frankness may be, you can at least take comfort in thinking that you will have given them a precious chance to learn something about themselves, you, or both.

A Note on the Fair Americans
People from other parts of the world are often struck by Americans' seemingly unbounded willingness to take a chance on others. This is a defining American trait, just like the belief in freedom and in the rights of the individual. What is America if not the place where people can expect to be given a chance, where they are given the benefit of the doubt when they come under suspicion and a second chance after a fall? These are all forms of thinking the best of others. As a European who has lived in the United States for a long time, I continue to marvel at this mixture of idealism and radical fairness in the American soul.

Take this quiz and put your manners to the test.

Excerpted from P.M. Forni's Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct © 2002 by P.M. Forni. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.


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