I can’t remember why now, but way back when when I was 18, and working in my first job in a Coles supermarket, my boss looked at me and said, “Don’t assume, because assuming makes an ass out of you and me.” This was the first time I had heard that particular gem, but it wouldn’t be the last, oh no.
Some lessons are so important to a person’s development, that they get it over and over again, from every different angle you can imagine, and some that you can’t, until the message is emblazoned onto every cell and DNA molecule. Don’t fret, we all have them, and this is one of mine (starring alongside Not everything benefits from your action/interference, and Drop your expectations if you want to have a good life).
In his book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Miguel Ruiz also says:
If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.
In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening are bullshit. If you want to know something, go and ask. Assuming anything is lazy and bad-mannered, and almost always wrong.
I read two wonderful stories this month which illustrate this concept better than anything else I could say:
This first story is from Charlotte Clymer and is a story she wrote on Twitter:
Months ago, around 6am, I’d hear this awful revving and screeching from a car not far from outside my bedroom window. It sounded like the driver was pumping the gas for several minutes followed by terrible, high-pitched grinding and, finally, merciful silence as they drove off. Every morning. And it annoyed the hell out of me every morning. Who does this person think they are? Who does that? And one morning, after a month of this, in the midst of again being woken up, I got really annoyed, threw on my bathrobe, and marched out to the back of my apartment building ready to give this person a talking-to on being considerate to neighbors.
I got back there and came across the sorriest looking vehicle I’ve seen in a long while, and this older gentleman standing next to it, concentrated on starting it. He looks up at me in my bathrobe and disheveled hair with the most apologetic–dare I say, humiliated– expression. And I immediately felt terrible for being angry. This gentleman was on his way to work somewhere–same godawful, shitty time every morning–and it was just obvious he felt so embarrassed about the racket his shitty car was making.
And he said with deep empathy: “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t wake you.” I lied. Because of course I did. And he knew I was lying. “No, not at all. I was just coming back here to see if someone might need help getting their car started. You never know.” Ugh, weak response. He flashed this sad smile and said he was fine and sorry again for the noise. I introduced myself + shook his hand, nonchalant, as though my daily habit were walking outside my apartment in my bathrobe at 6am, and he just happened to be on my route this particular morning.
I’ve thought a lot about this interaction in the past few months, and whenever I get angry–and there’s quite a number of reasons to inspire such a feeling in our current political environment–I think of this lovely human being struggling with a clunker to get to work… .and how very easy it was for my anger to evaporate instantly once I understood what was happening and how easy it is to not be an asshole that assumes the worst over a mild inconvenience. This morning, again at 6am, same noises, and as with every morning since our interaction, no anger. No annoyance. Just peaceful acceptance. I’m off today from a job I really love, and he clearly has to go to his after the same damn start-up routine. I almost wanna hug him. Everyone’s fighting battles. Try to acknowledge that when you can.@cmclymer
The second story is also from Twitter, written by a student called Thomas McFall:
So in one of my Management classes I sit in the same seat in the front every day.@thomas_mcfall
Every single day I sit there.
Now, I also sit next to some foreign guy that barely speaks English. The most advanced thing I’ve heard this guy say in English is “Wow, my muffin is really good”.
This guy also has a habit of stacking every item he owns in the exact space I sit.
His bag, his food, his books, and his phone are ALWAYS right on my desk space.
Now, every single time I walk into class this guy says “Ah, Tom. You here. Okay.” And starts frantically clearing my desk of his belongings. He then makes it a habit to say “Ready for class, yeah?” And gives me a high five.
Every day this guy gives me a high five.
I was ALWAYS annoyed with this guy. I’m thinking “Dude, you KNOW I sit in this seat every day. Why are you always stacking your shit here?”
And the last thing I want to do is give a guy who barely speaks my language high fives at 8 in the morning.
Like just get your shit off my desk, you know?
But today I came to class and was running a few minutes late. I’m standing outside because I had to send a quick text. I could see my usual space through the door out of the corner of my eye. Of course, my desk was filled with his belongings.
As I’m standing there on my phone another guy who was also late walks into the class before me and tried to take my seat since it’s closest to the door.
The guy sitting next to me stops this dude from sitting down and says
“I’m sorry. My good friend Thomas sits here.”
It was then that I realized this guy wasn’t putting stuff on my seat to annoy me. He was SAVING me the seat every morning.
And this whole time he saw me as a friend but I was too busy thinking about myself to take him into consideration.
Cheesy as it sounds, I was touched.
I ended up going into class and of course he cleared the seat and said “Ah, Tom. You here. Okay.” And I did get a high five.
At the end of class I ended up asking him if he wanted to get a bite to eat with me. We did. And we talked for a while. I got through the broken English, that the guy moved here from the Middle East to pursue a college education in America. He plans to go back after he gets his degree. He’s got two kids and a wife. He works full time and sends his all his left over money back home to his wife.
I asked him how he liked America as well. He said he misses his family but it’s exciting to be here. He also said,
“Not every American is nice to me like you are, Tom.”
I bought lunch, of course. Dude deserves it. He gave me a high five for buying lunch. Gotta keep up tradition.
Moral of the story? Don’t do what I do and constantly only think about yourself. It took me nearly the entire semester to get my head out of my ass and realize this guy was just trying to be my friend.
Better late than never I suppose.
And here is one of my own:
A couple of months ago, I texted the mother of one of my daughter’s friends to see if her daughter wanted to come to the movies with us. She didn’t reply, and at first I was worried that I had the wrong number. And when she still didn’t reply, I just started making stuff up like, “How rude!” and “she doesn’t like me!” and “she doesn’t want my daughter to hang out with her daughter!” And so I decided that if she didn’t like me, then I didn’t like her either. Apparently my inner voice is 10.
Fast forward two months, and I meet her in the supermarket, in a week when my daughter has been badgering me for her friend to come over to our house. She mentions this, and I say that it’s fine and we’ll organise it over the next few days. I pause and then ask, “Is your phone number still the same?”
And she looks embarrassed and says “Yes! I’m so sorry, I didn’t reply to you when you texted me, but I’d just smashed my phone screen – it was ringing, but I couldn’t see anything or answer it. By the time I was able to get it fixed, I was so overwhelmed with all the missed calls and massages, I just deleted them.”
And you know what I said? “Don’t worry, everyone knows what a lovely person you are, I’m sure nobody thought anything about it.”
Because that’s what she deserved to hear.
And then I went home and told my daughter the story and said what an important lesson it is to not make assumptions about anything. Go to the source, don’t believe gossip, and above all else, don’t listen to the rubbish your own mind makes up.