Opinionated or judgmental? It’s a fine line and sometimes a slippery slope



“Do you think she has a thyroid problem?” Two women looking at a photo of an overweight relative.

“Have you talked to your doctor about portion control?” A mother says to her daughter as she eyes her figure.

“How can you not go to the wedding? You’re almost related,” says one friend to another, with her voice rising to emphasize her thought.

“Why would you be invited to a bridal shower when you’re not invited to the wedding? Nobody used to do that?” a friend says to her friend over the phone. The friend thinks but doesn’t say, “Whoa. I think rules have changed and I’m okay about it.”

“You spend so much more on clothing than I do. I would never buy that at that store,” a sister says to her younger sister who is modeling a dress she purchased for an upcoming fundraiser. The wearer thinks, but also doesn’t say, “Wow, how not to be supportive.”

“You have to spend the equivalent of the wedding meal on a gift; that’s an unwritten rule,” an older relative instructs her niece while having lunch. The niece quickly loses her appetite as she digests what the price will mean to her tight budget.

The questions…opinions, and judgments

The questions…opinions, and judgments…go on and on, turning in our heads like a carousel and making us feel terrible about ourselves, our actions, and those we care about.

Of course, we sometimes let the people who dish out such comments do the damage. We’ve taken the bait. We could brush them off like lint on a black sweater rather than internalize them. We could smile, change the subject, walk away.

But we find it so hard to do those things. We’re sensitive and sadly the comments usually stick.

There’s another option. We could reply and even disagree–and sometimes we have when we feel an extra dose of confidence. But usually we remain quiet or get defensive. A lot depends on our mood at the moment, the exact circumstances of how it was said and who’s sharing the advice.

When the family member asked another about the heavyset young relative, the one responding said nothing. She could have replied, “No, she doesn’t have a thyroid problem. She’s heavy, but she seems very happy!” She wasn’t in the mood to disagree.

To the mother critiquing her daughter’s weight, the daughter spoke up, since it wasn’t the first time this topic was broached. She said, “Mother, this isn’t the time or place to discuss my portions, and this is something I actually don’t care to speak about at all ever.”

Beg the question

These and other repartees beg the question, when did people—family, friends and acquaintances–decide they have the right to speak up so bluntly when they’re not asked for their opinion or judgment and sometimes the person who’s the subject isn’t there to add their thoughts? Moreover, what’s the difference between an opinion and judgment?

In our parlance, an opinion is how you feel about something when asked. That’s the key. Someone else wants to know your thoughts—fire away. Examples work both ways. We ask, “Does my hair look better this way or a tad shorter?” “Do you like this color I’m considering painting my living room?” Or, we’re asked, “What about this guy I’ve been dating? Do you like him, really, really like him? Be honest.” And then they are.

However, a judgment is unsolicited and personal. You or the other person is judging—whack. So, why are they so rampant these days? Is it a result of many more becoming narcissistic–not in a clinical-diagnostic way, but just as a part of our over-sharing economy? We’re certainly guilty and share our judgments, too.

Or is it because in the midst of the coronavirus almost at the three-year-mark we’re tired, angry and bored and looking to stir the pot? We need some excitement in our lives, and a heated discussion will do just that–and fast!

Or is it because most of our friends are in our peer group and we’re aging. What’s happening to us is what happened to many of our elderly family members years ago. We’re at the tipping point of losing our filters and need to catch ourselves by thinking more before we utter those judgments.

Call a truce

We think it’s time to call a truce and recognize this type of conversational chatter for what it is…and isn’t. Opinion is great when it’s elicited and comes from honest thoughtfulness or reaction and isn’t going to wound the other person. It also needs to be said in a kind, respectful tone.

When asked which one of two dresses works better a nicely expressed opinion is, “I think the solid black dress flatters much more than the striped one.” It veers off into a judgment when the following is added, “Those horizontal stripes really accentuate the fact that you have a big bust.” Judgment is rarely okay, unless someone’s in danger. And you’re not likely to be by wearing a certain dress.

Life is tough enough, and friends are supposed to make you feel good about yourself. Keep the conversation flowing, think before you speak and be kind. Otherwise, you may put the final nail in the coffin of a friendship. Opinion or judgment? You decide.

Margaret (Meg) Crane lived most of her life in St. Louis, was associate editor of the Jewish Light in the early 70s and from 2001-2012, was senior writer for Jewish Federation. Two years ago, she moved to New York City to be closer to family living there. Barbara Ballinger, originally from New York, lived in St. Louis for 23 years and worked at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She now lives in upstate New York. Follow their blog here.