02/03/2015 05:59 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2015

Perception and Reality Clash at a Home Improvement Store

The other day I was at Home Depot inquiring about a door I ordered when a man barreled down the aisle with one of those mammoth pushcarts. He nearly ran me over, turned and then said, "Are you ignorant or just obstinate?" He then just kept walking toward the front of the store, shaking his head.

I was stunned, as were the clerks on the other side of the desk helping me out. I thought about giving him a good old-fashioned Greek greeting, but I decided to pull back lest he had a weapon on him other than the sheet rock he was hauling. I came up with a mealy, "Are you polite or not polite?" In hindsight, I reflected on this puny response and later came up with all sorts of Bronx cheer retorts I could have used, but I'm not the road rage type so I did not confront him. Besides, and this may seem strange, I was impressed with his choice of words; obviously a well-read man, albeit a miserable one at that moment.

I bring up this slice-of-life scenario not to chide the stranger or to cast aspersions on him. Maybe he was having a bad day (this was one day after a massive blizzard) or he had a family emergency or a relative who was ill or worse. And I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: in the middle of the aisle checking my cell phone for information I needed to give to the clerks, distracting his given mission of the moment. If I had seen him, I would have moved out of the way but I had no idea he was there until he was an inch away from my face.

We are all extremely quick to judge and label strangers. This all-too-human human trait is based on either some preconceived notions we have carried around since someone stole our marbles or dolls during our formative years or just plain ignorance of other cultures or ways of life strange to us.

Clearly this person misjudged me because he doesn't know that I go out of my way to be thoughtful to strangers, always yielding at a tie at 4-way traffic stop, considering the person behind me when I shop in a grocery store and even returning the cart to its proper place when I'm done packing the trunk. But he doesn't know any of this or me at all. I'm just another person in his way. And clearly for a mini-second during our brief encounter, I misjudged him.

Judging someone from a distance, without really knowing that someone, can lead to huge problems in a society. It's the spoon that stirs the racial bias pot, as well as religious intolerance or even everyday snootiness. It occurs everywhere: on the roads, in stores, at the workplace, on city streets, restaurants, neighborhoods, and even under our own roof. Often, talking to someone makes a huge difference in the way we see him or her.

All of this, of course, doesn't apply to truly evil people and situations in which you are physically threatened. That deserves swift judgment, the kind doled out with your gut as the driver.