“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”
In modern American culture—and in many cultures in many ages—there’s great admiration for the trailblazer, the inventor, the social reformer, for those who defy public opinion to speak the truth as they see it. (As long as they defy the right opinions, of course.) If you Google the phrase “care what others think,” the first page of results (as of this writing, on my computer) gives nine links and five images—and with one exception, all of them either passionately argue that caring what others think is a terrible idea, or they give suggestions on how not to do it. And I get that. After all, the trailblazers and defiers are the ones who make history, who change the world with their new ways of seeing and doing. As a card-carrying member of the Strong-Minded Independent Thinker Task Force, I admire that too.
But as an independent thinker who questions truisms and social norms, I want to question this one as well. I understand the desire to reject conformity and defy public opinion. Boy, howdy, do I understand it. But as a catch-all guideline for how we should all live our lives, “Don’t care what other people think” is far too simplistic.
As a matter of pure practicality, it makes sense at least sometimes to care what other people think. To give an obvious example: If I’m preparing for a job interview, I need to put at least some thought into what my potential bosses will think of me. Humans are social animals: we live in an intricately interconnected piece of social machinery, and we depend on other people for our survival and happiness. Being aware of how we’re perceived by others is part of what makes that work. If other people see us as arrogant and unfeeling, disorganized and flaky, or shortsighted and reckless—and we don’t realize it or don’t care—we’re going to be in trouble.
There’s a social justice angle to this as well. When other people have power over you, you bloody well have to care what they think. In some cases, your actual life might depend on it. Not caring what other people think is a privilege. It’s a whole lot easier when you have power, wealth, or other advantages—even to a relative degree.
But apart from these practical concerns, it’s important, at least sometimes and in some ways, to care what other people think. It’s important for one very important reason, one that should matter to humanists and freethinkers and skeptics: other people are a reality check.