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Assumptions: Our Theory of Everything. Sometimes it’s Best to Go Straight to the Source.

March 05, 2021 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

We look at a situation and when we don’t have the facts we might add our own spin. We write an assumption in our head, and sometimes even an alternative scenario. After all, we assume we know other people’s motivation and way of thinking.

Here are some familiar assumptions, which we’re sure you can identify with:

  • You don’t hear for a few days from a guy you’re dating. You assume he doesn’t care about you any longer. Oh, well, it was nice while it lasted.
  • You’re in a store and see someone you’ve known for years who doesn’t say “hi.” You assume she’s snubbing you, although you don’t know why. What could you possibly have done?
  • You see your new boyfriend walking down the street side by side with a pretty woman and assume the worst.
  • You made an appointment with a contractor to start work; he takes a deposit, then doesn’t show. You call and text and assume you’ve been scammed. 

Sadly, the reality can be quite different:

  • The guy didn’t call because his cell wasn’t working and he was too busy to get it repaired.
  • You find out later that the woman who snubbed you wasn’t wearing her glasses. She didn’t see you. Or, she’s begun to have memory problems.
  • The guy with the gal introduces you to his cousin in from out of town whom you obviously had never met or heard about.
  • The contractor had a car problem, took his wife’s car, didn’t have his phone to call you and then coffee spilled on his phone when he found it. A version of the dog ate your homework? Not exactly, but he eventually calls and shows up. All that angst you put yourself through seems now for naught. 

We are all victims of making assumptions, which can be harmful, hurtful, even dangerous. You have a sudden sharp pain that starts on the right side of your lower abdomen. Initially, you assume it must be gas. It will go away if you give it some time. You give it a day or two, and it doesn’t. The pain becomes unbearable. Finally, you call the doctor who says you need to get to an emergency room pronto. It could be your appendix. In this case, it’s good you got it checked out and in time before it erupted. However, if it was gas, it might be time to check your diet.

Here’s another example. You witness a mugging and assume all of what you saw is true. However, memory can play tricks on your mind and that’s when assumptions seep in to fill the holes. It’s called the Rashomon effect. The memories you have are replaced by the stories you tell yourself. Some details are reinforced while others fade or are lost forever. And when the police ask for your version, your memory is fuzzy, so you make assumptions. “I think the guy had his hand in his coat pocket and was ready to pull out a weapon.” That’s the dangerous version of an assumption. 

How about the person who assumes she’s always right? We all know people like this. What an insipid assumption; no one is always right. Then, we have Margaret who tends to believe the opposite. She assumes if something goes wrong, it’s somehow her fault. If she can’t access her email, she automatically assumes it’s something she did. She learns later that her email server is down. The stove doesn’t turn on. What did she do? When someone comes to check it out, she learns the oven had to be reset. Her cable TV is on the blink. What button did she push to mess it up? She calls the cable service and learns there’s an outage in her area due to a wind storm. 

Barbara often has made assumptions, many times about her work. If she doesn’t hear within a day from an editor about an article she turned in, she assumes it wasn’t liked or loved. Almost always the editor did not have time yet to read it. Reality check: She’s not the only one writing for each editor she works with. Moreover, she’s reminded herself after almost 50 years of writing professionally that the editor would get to her promptly so she could make changes. Other times the editor may not be feeling well. They get sick, too, or have bad days, might have aging parents or young children who occupy their time. 

Same goes with medical tests. Barbara assumed that all physicians operate the same way and will tell her if something is awry with a call as soon as they see test results. Not so. Some do and some are busy and take longer. Now, she relies more on her medical portal for results, which typically takes days. 

We’ve heard from friends reading our blogs that they assume we’re writing about them when we describe a person with a certain situation and don’t use a name. How could we write about the time they yelled at their partner in public so everyone heard. They were mortified that they did so, and more mortified that we thought it good to write about it as an example of crossing a boundary. Sometimes, we might write about our friends and family, but we would never do anything that’s so obviously about this person especially without their permission. And many times, we aren’t writing about anybody we know but focusing on hypotheticals we’ve run into, read about or even seen on TV. We all assumed years before we knew the truth about Charles and Diane that he still loved Camila. Later, we read that to be true. Some assumptions do ring true. 

Why do we do this? Where do assumptions spring from? Is it learned behavior, or does our brain press a button and these assumptions come spilling into our heads and out our mouths? Do we pigeonhole certain personality types based on one experience, relying on old information and behavior? For example, we think, Molly never buys a gift because she’s a cheapskate. The reality in defense of Molly is that she really doesn’t have the extra funds.  

Barbara believes she learned the habit (bad) from her mother, who would be upset if someone didn’t call or write a thank-you note immediately. Her mom assumed the recipient didn’t like the gift or didn’t like her. Barbara knew this wasn’t true, but that they didn’t have her mom to teach the importance of offering thanks fairly quickly. Barbara explained to her mom that she should send gifts because she wants to and with no expectations for a thank you by phone or letter. 

We also may make assumptions because we allow our inner voices to answer a question before we think it through. We’re too impatient to wait for the truth, which has happened with each of us when we don’t hear from a friend or each other in sending our work back and forth. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to mitigate these terrible assumption afflictions fiascoes:

  1. Stop in your tracks, think about why you’re assuming anything, and then, if possible, go to the source. As reporters we know how to do this for a story but often in personal matters, we fall back on faulty thinking. Whatever happens, you always have a choice to act rather than assume.
  2. Speak to the person you are questioning or making assumptions about. Why did you do thus and so? Explain how it made you feel. You might be surprised at the answer. It’s better to speak rather than text or email since messages often get misconstrued with written words and better to hear the voice and tone.
  3. Assume before you leap to any conclusion that there may be different scenarios. Play them out in your head or to a friend and try to be logical. What was the real message rather than the one you glommed on to? Or, better don’t play out any and just wait.
  4. In fact, waiting is often the best course. Give a situation a few days or even a week or month. Especially now, so many are stressed with juggling their COVID-19 lives—doing work, staying in touch, trying to get a first or second vaccine, staying healthy with exercise and good eating, cooking, reading, Zooming, and so on. Cut everybody extra slack, including yourself!
  5. Remember that you are not a clairvoyant. Try not to predict others’ actions and reactions. It’s counterproductive and very often your conclusion is wrong adding unneeded stress and anxiety. You don’t want others to do so with you, so try not to do so with others.
  6. Try to be open to the possibility that you may be wrong. If you are stuck in your assumption, the opportunity to change your thinking or to go to the source is diminished.
  7. Don’t waste your creativity on creating assumptions. Better to really be creative and productive. Get out your paint box or practice the piano. Don’t dwell on what you think might have happened. As Barbara’s beau often tells her, “You could have written an article, started a painting or baked a cake in the amount of time you spent ruminating about why your friend or editor didn’t call you.”
  8. If you can, stop having an assumption bother you and let it go. Breathe, relax. And remember that making an assumption is usually a great waste of good, healthy energy.

Now that the vaccine has arrived, many of us assume it will viable and safe. And we try not to assume there won’t be enough vaccine or that we’ll be last in line or that the day we need it a massive snow storm will hit and the delivery trucks won’t arrive or the refrigerator system will break down and the vaccines won’t be usable. See, it is so easy to get started and forget what we just learned.

The only positive result of making assumptions is that they can stir up the imagination and be good storylines for TV dramas and sitcoms and plays. When life is trying enough, try to focus on reality, and assume that businesses will recover, schools will re-open fully, airlines will fly with more passengers and new air purification systems, restaurants will fill up for indoor seating, Broadway will again turn on the lights, symphonies will play, and we all will get back on track to more normal lives. Are these assumptions? Maybe, you decide, but we think this line of thinking is wishful and a healthy and happy way to cope! Cheers.

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