It's just a moment.
It's the moment when the usually calm mother screams at her kids, or the normally kind man loses his temper or the competent TV news anchor rolls her eyes after a trying segment.
Yet still we judge.
Whether it's a celebrity or the average Joe or Jane, we take one slice of a person's life and assume it's the net sum of their total character.
The errant cashier slopping salsa all over the counter at Taco Bell, the politician giving his or her spouse a disgusted look or the celebrity mother ignoring her kid's cry for water - they're all fodder for our disapproval and judgment.
There's a video circulating around of reality star Kate Gosselin ignoring her daughter's request for a drink of water as Kate herself slugs back a slurp just moments before a live TV interview featuring her and the eight kids.
The tabloids had a field day, serving up the video as proof that Gosselin is an uncaring, callous mother. I have no idea whether Kate Gosselin is a great mother or a horrific one, but I do know that she's hardly the first parent to ignore a perfectly legitimate request from her child.
Good grief, she's the mother of eight. We don't know what happened right before the video, how many times she's already given this kid water in the last 30 minutes, and what else might have been going on at the moment of the request. For all we know, the director was screaming into her earpiece, "Lose the water bottle! We're live with 'Wake Up Tupelo' in five seconds."
Had she given one kid water, she probably would have ignited a chorus of "me, too" from the other seven that would have been captured live on TV, causing all the fine folks in Tupelo to believe that Kate Gosselin can't control her kids.
I heard a story once from Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, that forever changed the lens through which I view other people's behavior. Peck was on the subway when a man boarded with three out-of-control children. As the kids screamed, jumped around and made general mayhem, their father seemed to be just ignoring them. The other subway passengers became more and more agitated, and one of them finally confronted the errant dad, suggesting he get control of his children.
To which he replied, "Oh, I'm sorry, we've just come from the hospital, their mother just died, and I suppose they just don't know what to do with themselves."
As you can imagine, the judgmental stares immediately evaporated. And that's the lesson.
You never know what's going on with other people. The snippy co-worker may be going through a bad divorce, the disgruntled waiter may have just found out his mother was dying, and the inattentive mother may be having a bad day.
When you assume the worst about people, you really just bring out the worst in you.
Yet how might it affect your own mood if you assumed that the person who cut you off in traffic was speeding to the hospital to meet the ambulance carrying their sick child? Giving people the benefit of the doubt isn't just the kind thing to do; it's the least stressful option.
It's just a moment. It's a moment in their lives, and a moment in yours. You decide how to interpret it.
Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, syndicated columnist and business consultant. She is a well-known keynote speaker, and she is an expert in why seemingly normal people can't seem to get along. Her books include Forget Perfect and Finding Grace When You Can't Even Find Clean Underwear. Her newest book The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret of Resolving Conflicts Large and Small, is slated for release January 5, 2010 from Penguin/Putnam. Visit her site: TriangleofTruth.com