Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Danger of Making Assumptions

Today is Wednesday, November 27, 2013.

Making assumptions can be dangerous. At least, that's been my experience.  In the cartoon at right, the people on second floor assume that the loud music must be coming from the young man's apartment above them.  Instead, it's coming from the older folks downstairs.  

My earliest negative experiences with assumptions came while I was living in Japan.  That's where I learned that not everyone thinks and feels the same way.  If I had continued to live all my life in the same area where I grew up, I might not have had experiences that challenged my belief system.  I learned that not only were my own assumptions dangerous, but that I had to watch out for the assumptions of other people. Assumptions are generally based on our notions of roles that we play in society (parent, child, husband, wife, teacher, student, boss, subordinate, etc.).  Each culture has slightly different expectations for these roles, and they are, for the most part, unwritten rules.  A wife in the United States, for example, has different assumptions about her role with respect to her mate from a wife in Japan.  A boss in Japan behaves quite differently in certain situations from an American boss.

I've also become aware that our expectations are molded, as well, on the relative position of our racial group in society, on whether we are male or female, married or single, and whether we are part of the majority or minority in any area of life, such as religion, ethnicity, nationality, place of birth, or economic status.  A Christian white male may never have his assumptions challenged on his home turf, but if he should travel to a country where Christians and whites are in the minority, he will have a rude awakening.  That same Christian white male will have very different assumptions from a black man of the Muslim faith, even if they both live in the same city, only a few blocks apart.

I can recall waiting for an elevator in an office building with a group of Japanese men.  As soon as the doors opened, all the men rush into the elevator, and I realized that I had expected them to wait for me to enter the elevator first.  The experience happened so fast, and it took a while for me to understand that the situation bothered me because my expectations had not been met.  Then I had to think hard about what those expectations were, and why I had them.  Why was it so important for me to enter the elevator first, just because I was a woman?

Another time, I was having a meal at my parents-in-law's home, when my Japanese husband picked up his empty rice bowl and began to tap it on the table.  I asked him what was wrong, and he asked me in an exasperated voice why I hadn't noticed that his rice bowl was empty.  I told him if he wanted more rice, he should have asked for it.  He pointed out that my mother-in-law had purposely placed the rice cooker near my place at the table for a reason.  It was my job to dish out the rice, and I was never to leave a man's rice bowl empty. I was stunned.  I found out later that the youngest adult female in the home is automatically supposed to serve the rice, and my husband was right: I was never to allow the men's rice bowls to sit empty.  When I didn't behave according to their expectations, my parents-in-law didn't just assume that I was unaware of their customs.  Rather, they assumed that I was a "bad wife."

I still run into situations, occasionally, that trip me up, but at least I am more aware of – and more accepting of – people's behavior that is based on assumptions.  Meanwhile, I try hard not to make assumptions of my own, and I strive to remain aware of my own assumptions, so that I can see situations more clearly and react to them more appropriately.  :-)

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