The Golden Rule is Broken

I recently finished reading John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. By Gray’s account, one of the most common problems that couples have is in recognizing and appreciating gender differences.

Men mistakenly expect women to think, communicate, and react the way men do; women mistakenly expect men to feel, communicate, and respond the way women do. We have forgotten that men and women are supposed to be different. As a result our relationships are filled with unnecessary friction and conflict.

I am reminded of an anecdote in Gerald Weinberg’s Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach where a husband and wife purchase a dual-section electric blanket in the hopes of keeping the wife, who is usually too cool, warmer and the husband, who is usually too warm, cool. After one night of use they are both completely dissatisfied with the blanket. The husband was too hot; the wife too cold. They return to the store the next day demanding a refund. The wise, old clerk at the store refuses to take it back, saying “I think I know what’s going on here: you had your controls crossed. You”, he said to the husband, “had the dial that controlled her side of the blanket, and you”, turning to the wife, “had the one for his. When you felt cool, you turned up your dial, causing his side of the blanket to get warmer. He naturally turned down his dial, causing your side of the blanket to become cooler. The cycle repeated until his side was as hot as possible and your side was as cool as possible.”

What’s the point? As I a child I was indoctrinated with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In light of the preceding examples, I have to question its validity. In both examples, the participants are treating their counterpart as they would like to be treated, but with an undesirable end result. If nothing else, it shows that the Golden Rule is not universal. There are times that it fails. And according to Gray, it fails quite often.

The Golden Rule is broken. It fails to take into account the needs and wants of others. It assumes that everybody wants the same thing.

What can we do about it? Is there any way to fix it? Not that I can see. Instead, I propose a new rule to take its place: Understand what others need and want, and treat them accordingly.