Assumptions Are The Termites of Peace

July 25, 2011
How often do we make assumptions about people we don’t even know?

Small drawing of two people walking with a small childWhen I read that Henry Winkler, actor and comedian, said that assumptions were the “termites of relationships,” I was struck by the truth of it. In a world where we are convinced we not only understand others, but know what is good and bad for them — even before we get to know them and learn their point of view — prejudice, conflict and war are sure to follow. Short of those major problems, assumptions rob us of the potential for relationships that could enrich our lives.

Our tendency to draw conclusions is described perfectly in The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Man and woman walking arm in armJuster. In this well-known story, the protagonist is a bored young man who finds a tollbooth in his bedroom. With nothing else to do, he pays the toll and enters an adventure with words that soar and dip as he discovers life from a very different perspective. One of the most delightful of these metaphors is the “Island of Conclusions.” The only way you can get there is to jump. Getting off the island is much more difficult.

None of us is immune to this phenomenon, which you can demonstrate to yourself the next time you take a drive or go to the mall. As you see some people coming toward you, at first you may not give much thought to who they are or whether you would like them if you knew them. The Parents holding child's handcloser they come, however, the more you become aware of your assumptions about them. With a barely perceptible “feeling,” you have made a judgment about them that falls somewhere on the continuum of good person/bad person.

You can’t help but do so! Evolution has built into our genes the ability to make quick decisions Drawing of couple in winter clothes walkingabout the “other.” When a movement in the forest could be a dangerous animal or a person, either friend or foe, being able to make quick judgments can make the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, we have expanded this capacity to judge people and situations quickly and frequently end up on the Island of Conclusions, where it can be hard to change our assumptions.

As I noted in the last Ask Yourself Questions Club question in The Stories We Tell, how we dress greatly influences the way people see us. However, without hearing the stories others would tell if we would stop to listen to them, in a split second we make assumptions about them based not only on how they are dressed, but on their age, sex, weight, and the color of their skin. Are they walking briskly and appear healthy, or do they walk slowly as though they are in pain? Does their face reflect joy or sadness? And is it a face we have been taught to admire because it is handsome and beautiful, or does the person have a “flaw” that a plastic surgeon could “correct?”

There are behaviors, of course, that deserve our disapproval, such as rudeness, allowing children to run wild in the aisles of the store, dropping chewing gum on the sidewalk, and shoving into line Man and woman walking arm in armwhen others have been waiting patiently. I’m not talking about judging those actions. In this week’s question I’m focusing on the more subtle characteristics we use to categorize people as desirable or undesirable, as someone we would like to know or someone we “probably” wouldn’t like.

I am reminded of a time we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant out in the desert when four people wearing bright motorcycle outfits came in, talking animatedly about their ride that morning. Their clothes and the fact that they seemed to live on the wild side was all I needed to paint a picture of their life. I was sure the women were probably waitresses in a bar or on welfare. There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a barmaid or, if you’re sometimes really needy, Sketch of man and woman with childwelfare. It’s just that I would never have assumed they had positions that required much education or experience.

However, as I listened in on their conversation (who wouldn’t?), my theory was shot full of holes when I heard the first woman say she had to get back in time for work as supervisor of more than twenty visiting nurses. The other woman, it turned out, was a school principal.

Unfortunately, making assumptions isn’t just a matter of misjudging strangers we’ll never see again. We make assumptions about whole groups of people. And, yes, they make assumptions about us. We all spend a lot of time on islands of conclusions to which we’ve jumped with ease.

But if we’re to make any progress toward peace in the world, we can start with recognizing that Couple with winter clothesthe assumptions we make create holes in the potential for peace, just like the termites we recently discovered in our attic have caused some boards, ones we count on to hold up the roof, to crumble.

You can begin to get rid of those “termites” by noticing how rapidly you judge other people. If you walk into a mall or sit on a park bench and watch people going by, allow yourself to simply “be.” When you see someone you’ve not met before, fill the “space” between you with appreciation for the diversity of humankind. With an open heart and mind, be receptive to accepting each person just as they are.

Drawing on man and woman with childOf course, if you are like me, it may be a long time before you can do this easily. In that case, remember that you aren’t stuck with your initial reaction. What counts is the second thought and how you treat other people. So even though initially you may feel negative toward a person who, in your judgment, is too fat, too thin, too loud, poorly dressed, et  cetera, allow your next thought to accept that person just as he or she is.

And if you notice you’re still judging someone you don’t know much about, give yourself a third chance, or more, to discover that it feels much better to drop your judgment of others and love them just as they are, at least until you can get to know them better.

Here are some questions to help you explore your assumptions:

When you remember the times you’ve misjudged a person, what is the characteristic (or characteristics) that most often causes you to make an assumption that turns out to be wrong?

As you look at the pictures on this page, what would your reaction be if the couple on the left were black and the ones on the right were white, or if they were mixed race couples?

Since these questions deal somewhat with race, I recommend a wonderful site called Understanding Race. Created by the American Anthropological Association, with funding from the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation, it is a well-designed site for the Race Project that explores “differences among people and reveals the reality — and unreality — of race.” One feature that was particularly well done was the illustration of how difficult it is to put people into boxes of one race or another.

In addition to a race blog on “Who is White?,” there is a blog where visitors can talk about their own experiences with race. I heartily recommend you visit the site.

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