“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”– Sirius Black (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
The Harry Potter series supplied a generation of readers with life-lessons. This easy way to judge someone’s character is one of the more important ones. The ultimate lesson of the series may be about how good triumphs over evil if we defeat a genocidal super-villain, but… it’s slightly less applicable to us in our daily lives.
Anyway, back to what Sirius said.
There can be no question that we as a species are naturally drawn to status and power. Even 10-month-old babies have been shown to have some understanding of social dominance and hierarchies. In an age of supposed equality for all, most of us have never managed to properly reconcile the inherent tension between equality and hierarchy. On the one hand, we profess belief in “Equal rights for everyone!” and “Everyone is the same in the eyes of God and the Law”. On the other, we do what we can to climb the social ladder – we aim for more money so that we buy stuff to impress ourselves and everyone around us.
Some would accuse this behaviour of being hypocritical. Maybe so, but on the whole, it’s a good thing. The fact that we’re experiencing that kind of inner conflict at all is to our credit.
Far more dangerous is the person who truly believes themselves to superior to others. They have no inner voice telling them to treat other people well; their actions are for some calculated benefit instead. There are, sadly, a lot of these types roaming the earth.
Power: The Best Judge of Character
Luckily, these kinds of people, no matter how carefully they might mask their inflated sense of self-importance, eventually end up revealing their true nature. Power is the ultimate truth-teller of a person’s character. For some people, having the slightest bit of authority over anyone is enough to unleash their inner fascist.
After all, it’s very easy to be nice to our superiors – a touch of flattery, a dash of sucking up – voila, we have earned ourselves a promotion. It’s also relatively easy to be nice to those who share the same social status as us. We never know when one of them can come in handy one day and do us a favour. But with people in a lower social position who can’t help us climb the ladder in any way? That’s where the mask slips. There’s no need to be nice anymore.
This is why the saying that “power corrupts” is only a half-truth. Power doesn’t just corrupt; it reveals. Power gives us the license to be ourselves and do the things we’ve always secretly wanted to do but feared. It divulges our authentic self, how we were raised and our value system.
This means that whatever existing strengths and weaknesses that we do have will be magnified when in a position of authority and power. When people who are naturally more altruistic are given power, they tend to share more. The opposite is true for selfish people. Despite this, we shouldn’t be too hasty to give anyone, no matter how nice they are, too much power. Everyone has their breaking point; over time, powerful people tend to become less empathetic of others, and more prone to lie, cheat and break the law.
The Waiter Rule
Since power is so dangerous, we need to be careful about who gets to have it. The Waiter Rule, first described by Dave Barry in his 1999 book is an excellent start to judge character:
“If somebody is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, then they are not a nice person.”
The implications are clear. Stay away from anyone who consistently* treats waiters and other service staff (receptionists, house-hold help, junior employees) poorly. Do not hire these kinds of people, do not date them and do not be friends with them. If you’re forced to be around them, minimize contact to only what is necessary.
(*Note: There are some situations, like being sleep-deprived, that can bring out the jerk in all of us. So don’t write people off because of one temper-tantrum, especially if they’re sorry for it later. If the tantrum happens frequently enough to form a pattern, the rule applies: you have a certified jerk on your hands.)
Freezing out the jerks from your lives can be crucial to your peace of mind. They do not understand that other people are people just like them. To them, other people are tools and accessories, a disposable means to further their own goals. The moment they gain any kind of power over you, they will treat you that way.
So what do we do unknow here? It should be our tendency to think that people who are nice to us are nice people. When we are to judge someone’s character, it’s a much better idea to see if they treat everyone that nicely, regardless of their station in life or what the other person can or cannot do for them. So go grab a coffee with them, and watch how they treat the barista instead.