The Golden Rule Is Broken
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
From the pegboard above the stove in my grandmother's kitchen hung utensils, a few small pots, and a metal sign that read: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When I was old enough to read those words, I thought if my teachers in school encouraged the Golden Rule and my deeply religious grandmother found it important enough to display in her home, it must be important.
The maxim was reinforced in college when I learned that the idea is expressed in many religions.
Buddhism: “Consider others as yourself.”
Christianity: “And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”
Confucianism: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
Hinduism: “Do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain.”
Judaism: “You should love your neighbor as yourself.”
The fact that the Golden Rule is so widely taught should have been a clue to me that looking out for others is not our natural instinct. In fact, we don’t have to look too far to realize the Golden Rule is broken.
As an educator, I have taught thousands of students the importance of understanding their audience when communicating a message. I help them shift from thinking about what they want to express, to focusing on the needs of the person receiving their message. And somehow, it wasn’t until I was teaching an intercultural communication class at Cornell University that I realized the flaw in the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule assumes that others will want to be treated the way you want to be treated.
In an essay titled Overcoming the Golden Rule, Milton Bennett writes, “Under this assumption lies another, more pernicious belief: all people are basically the same, and thus they really should want the same treatment as I would.”
Assuming we are similar can limit our ability to understand others. We are different and our differences come in many forms: ability, age, beliefs, body image, educational background, ethnicity, family of origin, geographic background, gender, language, learning style, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and more.
Let’s consider three simple examples of how the assumption of similarity has steered me wrong in different contexts.
When my youngest daughter is upset, my natural instinct is to rub her back. This is what my parents did for me when I was a child and I liked it. However, I observed that my daughter doesn’t find it soothing when I rub her back. She prefers that I hold her tight.
When my wife shares a challenge with me, my natural instinct is to want to help her solve the problem because I know I appreciate when she helps me work through difficult situations. It has taken me years to figure out she often just wants me to listen.
When I was in my twenties I volunteered to make breakfast once a month at a homeless shelter. At first I didn’t interact with the men because I assumed that if I was in their situation I would want to be left alone. One day I gained the courage to ask, “Do you mind if I join you?” The men were eager to share their stories. I learned many of them felt invisible and joining them for a meal let them express their humanity.
The assumptions we make are often so deeply rooted that we don’t even realize we are making them. Instead of assuming others want to be treated the way we would like to be treated, we should strive to treat others the way they would prefer to be treated. This is called the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would have done unto them.
We can use a variety of approaches to find out how others prefer to be treated. Today, I will only recommend one: Ask the person you are communicating with how they want to be treated.
This approach involves admitting we don’t know. Sometimes even asking the question can be uncomfortable. Included below are some phrases I find myself using as I shift my thinking from the Golden Rule to the Platinum Rule.
How can I support you?
How would you like me to proceed?
How do you feel?
What works well for you?
What is your desired outcome?
What do you hope for?
Reflect on times from your own life when the Golden Rule may have steered you wrong, and consider ways you can shift your default way of thinking to the Platinum Rule. I have my grandma’s Golden Rule sign hanging in my house as a daily reminder to question assumptions.
Bennett, M. J.(1998). Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Selected Readings. Hachette Book Group [eBook].
Dovidio, J. F., Piliavin, J. A., Schroeder, D. A., & Penner, L. A. (2017). The social psychology of prosocial behavior. Psychology Press.