It’s an old English proverb that traces its roots back many centuries. Chaucer wrote those words in 1386 in the “Tale of Melibee.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “Long experience of someone or something can make one so aware of the faults as to be scornful.”
It’s not just a saying…Familiarity can indeed breed contempt (unless you work hard to avoid it). I hear it all the time when I work with sales professionals, some of whom dangerously take their clients for granted: “That customer is such a pain in the ass; I absolutely dread his phone calls!”
That’s right; some people actually develop a feeling of disdain for their own clients!
A psychological study once indicated that people actually like people they know less about than those they know well. The finding runs counter to what people actually claim. If asked, most people say they like people they know very well, but as it turns out, the more you know about someone, the greater risk you’ll dislike them.
We like people with similarities to us, but the more we get to know a person, the more likely we are to find dissimilarities. Find enough dissimilarities and the person becomes irritating to us.
It’s not just limited to your clients. Familiarity with colleagues, bosses, family members and friends can lead to contempt.
And while “familiarity breeds contempt” is a natural human phenomenon, it’s generally not a good one. We need clients in order to keep companies in business. We need bosses in order to stay employed. We need friends and family in order to experience love and security.
So how do we as professionals transcend this natural human tendency and NOT hold the important people in our lives in contempt?
Start with Attitude
In his article, “Does Familiarity Breed Contempt” in Psychology Today, psychotherapist Mel Schwartz talks about the need for positive energy. A good attitude can be a powerful antidote for feelings of disdain. If we think negatively, we might be more apt to be disrespectful and dishonoring toward others. If you are unhappy, you are more likely to dwell on the faults you see in others.
We are less likely to think of another person with contempt if we remind ourselves to appreciate everything they have done for us or could do for us. See your fellow person as a precious resource, something for which we should be grateful.
Have a Thick Skin
We can develop feelings of contempt when we perceive someone isn’t respecting or valuing us enough. Have a thick skin. Just because someone is not kissing up to you enough doesn’t mean you have any right to treat them with disdain. As a professional, you need to be confident enough to shelve those feelings even though they come naturally.
Nobody is Perfect
You can avoid scornful feelings if you just forgive. Accept that nobody is perfect and that your business/career success is dependent upon a bunch of imperfect people.
Focus on Similarities
As stated earlier, we like people with similarities to us, but we act contemptuously toward people with dissimilarities. If this is true, consciously focus on the things you have in common with others and mitigate your differences.
Seeing the world from another person’s perspective is a powerful weapon in the fight against “familiarity breeds contempt.” We are more likely to think disparaging thoughts about a person when we don’t understand their background and the obstacles they must overcome. Figure out what makes a person tick. Discover why they do what they do. If you know a person’s background and motivation it’s easier to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Imagine all the money that is wasted and the business opportunities that are lost because of all the professionals who succumb to “familiarity breeds contempt.” Imagine how many office-environment tensions are unnecessarily created because contempt and derision. Imagine how much more effective you and your organization could be if everyone made a conscious effort to truly understand other people.
Ultimately, it comes down to respect. If you treat all your clients and colleagues with dignity while showing earnest appreciation and gratitude for them, you’re going to be more successful.
Nobody is perfect. If you think about it, each one of us is someone else’s nuisance. Each one of us has a group of people we annoy, and we probably don’t even realize it.