Sunday, July 19, 2015

On Assumptions

Several years ago, I entered a restroom.

Sorry, I was attempting a dramatically humorous opener this week.
But seriously, I remember the experience well:

The Story

I entered the restroom on campus where I worked and hesitated.
On the floor, near the door, was a pink umbrella. I thought
Similar Umbrella
a lady must have entered the wrong restroom. In the flash of a brief moment, many thoughts passed through my mind:
  • Would this be an awkward social interaction and if so, how can I avoid it?
  • Should I leave and come back later?
  • Should I go in the stall, rather than the urinal, so I don’t have to interact?
  • How could someone have made this mistake in light of the obvious indicators of which gender the restroom was for?

It was probably only a second until I realized I was being silly. Of course, it was a man with a pink umbrella. I don’t remember for sure, but I also must have seen men’s shoes under the stall.
So after the briefest of hesitations, I put the mistake out of my mind, and went to the urinal to accomplish the purpose for which I had entered.

Here’s when it gets funny:
As I was standing there, facing the wall, minding my own business (pun intended), I heard the gentleman open the stall door.
Then I heard an exclamation of surprise and some nervous laughter.
I was done so I turned toward the sink and the man there laughed a little and said, “I saw your long hair and thought you were a woman for a second!”

I laughed politely, refraining from countering, “I saw your girly umbrella and thought YOU were a woman!”
We both washed our hands and left.
End of story.

Three Morals to the Story

It would be a little obvious to say that the lesson here is: don’t make assumptions.
A supervisor of mine used to say, “you know what happens when you assume things…. You make assumptions.”

However, in many ways, assumptions are a natural part of life. We all assume things every day, its just part of our normal thought process. We assume that automatic door will work. We assume the light will turn green. We assume the other car will stop. We assume we’ll be charged the same amount at the register that is written on the price tag. We assume that people with a certain sort of expression are having a bad day.
And, yes, it’s a bigger discussion, but sometimes we assume that the individual with the pink clothing and the long hair is female.
So, “Don’t make assumptions” isn’t a reasonable request; it’s not natural or even necessary. Assumptions are like theories

Maybe, “Don’t act on your assumptions until they’re confirmed” is a better way to go.
If I had left when I saw the pink umbrella, or loudly stated, “Miss, you’re in the wrong restroom!” that would have been ridiculous.  On the other hand, we do have to act. We do have to progress in our day. It would be impossible to check all of our assumptions. It would be arduous to check even some of our assumptions. (Try asking for verification on every item before the cashier rings it up, see how that goes.) Sometimes people aren’t angry when they look angry, but sometimes they are. Caring for the other person, while maintaining a desire to not be snapped at requires wisdom and caution within social interactions. But social interactions themselves are unavoidable.  In life, we must act.
So, act on your assumptions. Be wise. Be cautious. Hold your assumptions loosely, be ready to amend them or discard them altogether.
So, make assumptions, realize they are assumptions, and be willing to be corrected.
These are good reminders for me and, I hope, for you.

I have one more lesson from that experience and I think it’s the important one.

Even as I type this, many years after the fact, part of me is indignant and even a little offended that the other gentleman assumed something incorrect about me.
I admit, sometimes,
my hair looks
Ok ok ok… I understand the long hair thing; I’ve had that experience out on dates with my wife (the waitress saying, “how are you ladies tonight…oh! Sorry”).
But I was STANDING at the urinal, come on, man!

It is silly of me to be annoyed at the other guy for doing the same thing I JUST did moments before.
“How DARE you, sir!”
“No, how dare YOU, sir”

It’s hard, to not be offended when someone gets you wrong.
“I’m not angry, this just IS my face!”
Who we are, the things we think are true about ourselves are, understandably, important to us. We want to protect our identities, save our thoughts about ourselves, and make sure the world around us doesn’t have misconceptions about us. It tends to affect us in a deep way when someone doesn’t “get” us. We don't want to be placed in a group of which we are not a part. 
That mean old lady…
Those hateful Christians…
Those republicans/democrats who don’t care about freedom…
That self-obsessed jerk…

So we become self-righteous and indignant when someone’s wrong about us.  We want to prove that we are not what the other has assumed. Our defenses come up; we strike back.  Relationship is damaged. Conflict occurs.

And that is the harder, and more important, lesson to remember.
Don’t worry about making assumptions, that’s natural.
Act on your assumptions in a cautious manner, that’s unavoidable.
But when you find that someone has made an unfavorable assumption about you, don’t fret. Don’t get angry.
Extend grace.

Extend the grace of realizing you’ve done the same thing, maybe even just a moment before.

My identity is closely related to my self-esteem.  I want to feel good about me. I want to feel good about my identity. And so at this point, I’m mad at anybody who dares to disrupt how good I feel about my identity! 

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