Over and over again, I get to know people who are fundamentally different from their surface appearances. The initial one or two interactions I have with them lead me to believe they have certain character traits, but as soon as some moderately important event occurs, the event serves as a scale that measures what's really important. It works in both directions. I can be impressed at first, but find out their actions are weaker than their words. Or, their personality may seem weak or abrasive, but their actions demonstrate unexpected strength.
I may be a shitty judge of character, you might say. Granted, I'm not perfect. But I'm talking about evaluating all the right evidence and getting proven wrong. Why is this? Mostly, I think it's because a lot of the people you're judging have a gut feeling of what a good person looks like. This is the person they advertise to the world. Some people have built a great facade. They might have legitimate intelligence, or knowledge, or a sense of humor (things I value), but they haven't put these attributes in the consistent service of their lives. I'm not going to say they've spent more time on designing their facade than on building their foundation, because this would be as tired a metaphor as "tired metaphor" is as cliché an idiom.
It's depressing that traits like intelligence and a sense of humor aren't enough for a decent evaluation. Proclaiming to subscribe to your deepest philosophy isn't even enough, for Christ's sake. You almost want to have a test on hand. ("Do me a favor and pass through this labyrinth, cut off the medusa's head, and bring it back to me for your next quest.") Everyone's so concerned with looking good, it's rare that someone gives two shits about being good. We're drowning in noble words, and suffocating from a lack of noble deeds.
I've been laughed at in my life for being meticulous in trying to judge what was right. Like I was some kind of naive idiot for actually giving a damn what's the honest or just thing to do. Add this to my ancient history, circa junior high school, of suspending my brain for the sake of not stirring the masses' pot, and you have someone who is now, admittedly, quick to emotionally pounce on people. But even after you see through all your own psychological interference, there's still a genuine challenge in judging people's actual character.
I think there are a couple of major reasons for this difficulty. The first is more obvious. People are inconsistent. Not just superficially, in terms of their personalities, or diabolically, like they're auditioning for Raging Bull II and decided to lose 50+ pounds of assholishness for the public camera. The problem is that they actually mean what they say. They just don't know themselves well enough to realize there's not a chance in hell they're going to do what they say. Either that, or their lack of principles leads to everything seeming so complicated that they have no idea how to follow through with what they mean.
As observers, we have no control over the mess which is other people's minds. We do have control over the nature of our identifications. And the second reason that judging people quickly is difficult is because it's easy to misrelate the meaning of words and the actions you think they imply. In other words, everything you ever heard someone say might be completely consistent with them clubbing their dog eighteen times over the head, you just didn't realize it at the time.
There ought to be a mandatory waiting period on judgment. Self-imposed, of course. Discounting a comment like "all Jews should be killed, and no, I'm not kidding, I really mean that, I really do think all Jews should be killed", most of what people say deserves at least more evidence or one substantial act for comparison. People deserve the chance to act, the chance to display their true nature.
The trick, for the one who judges, is not to allow yourself to become cynical. Having a guarded benefit of the doubt, let's call it, would be fair. Admittedly, this sounds a bit like a politician's X-but-not-X sounding "cautiously optimistic" (often in reference to a member of the opposite party spouting unexpectedly agreeable sentiments.) By "guarded", I mean you need to protect what's important to you, while allowing others the chance to show you who they are. In what situations, events, and subjects you decide to give someone the extra chance to act depends on what's at stake, what actions are possible, and how well you know the person. If you're flailing around like an epileptic Thalidomide baby in the middle of the Atlantic, and the only person available to throw you a line is the guy you would have picked last for your kickball team, now's not the time to assert your high standards in athleticism. Now's the time to clamp that stump you call your arm around any rope in the vicinity and solemnly pledge a free round of shots and oral sex to anyone who can get your drowning ass up into the boat.
Fortunately, we live on land. Life isn't one aquatic emergency after another (see Ayn Rand's essay, "The Ethics of Emergencies" in The Virtue of Selfishness). We have time to get to know people. We have time to give them little chances to make minor decisions, and then if they deserve it, to place more trust in them and see how they handle weightier issues.
In most circumstances, there's no rush to judge someone one way or another. Friends, mentors, and the average Joe who's not a huge, fucking pain in the ass are all nice to have, eventually. Give them time and let them show you who they are.