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“For thousands of years, a dominant food in China has been rice. Of all the utensils they could possibly use… how did two sticks win out?”

This humorous joke led me to a critical insight. When I first read the question online, I laughed aloud. Multiple people have asked this question on reddit, Quora, and more. At first, I thought it was just a humorous irony. There wasn’t an answer – it was simply a quirk of cultural history.

I made this joke multiple times while eating Chinese take out with friends. It was a great “go to” quip to make people grin. Then, one of my friends said something that changed my whole perspective:

“In Asia, much of the rice is sticky rice.”

My mind was immediately blown. Sticky rice! Of course. That would be so much easier to eat with chopsticks than the grainy American rice that runs through your chopsticks like sand. What I had once laughed at suddenly made sense. What I thought was ironic and funny was no longer relevant. It was an eye-opening awakening. (And, unfortunately, my lunchtime joke was no longer useful.)

The Sticky Rice Principle

Unfortunately, I’m a judgmental person. I am a “maximizer” who is always looking to make things better. I seem to have a predisposition to find flaws and try to change them. (Or, sometimes, simply berate them.) I am a natural optimist, but can often be cynical, especially when it comes to society.

It’s easy to look down on others and ask, “why on earth would they do it that way?” It’s easy to judge people for their mistakes and shortcomings. It’s easy to believe that if you were in someone else’s shoes, you would have done better. But what is more noble is to realize the “sticky rice principle”: You won’t understand why someone uses chopsticks to eat rice until you understand that their rice is sticky.

What does that mean? We don’t have all the information about anyone’s situation. It’s tempting to look down on people for what they should have or could have done. But we don’t walk in their shoes, and we don’t know why they do what they do. The “sticky rice principle”, for me, means that other people might have perfectly good reasons for doing what they do. They might just be reasons that I simply do not understand. Maybe other people aren’t as incompetent, crazy, or thoughtless as they seem.

I don’t know about anyone’s “sticky rice”, really. I don’t know the reasons that the people around me vote differently, dress differently, or act differently than I do. But I’m (slowly) learning that believing in people means giving them the benefit of the doubt. It might seem silly that they use chopsticks, but you never know. They might have sticky rice.

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