I’ve been thinking a lot lately about assumptions. All day long, I make thousands of little assumptions. I draw conclusions based on a raised eyebrow, a shift in tone, a gap in narrative. I fill in blanks in poorly written emails. When someone calls and doesn’t leave a message, I immediately create a reason why.
We all do this. And often, we are right. But we are not always right, because we are not mind readers; therein lies the problem.
My parents’ neighbors have dogs. A yellow lab who is friendly, and a black lab who is mean. And a little purse dog. Yellow Lab (and her partner in crime, Purse Dog) keeps escaping and running all over the neighborhood – it’s almost a daily occurrence. She craps all over my parents’ back yard and my back yard. Which is gross enough as it is, but the kids’ swing set is in my parents’ back yard. (My back yard is too small for one.) My children play back there.
Black Lab doesn’t escape, but he snarls and barks at anyone who dares go in his line of sight. The neighbors have a chain-link fence, and my parents don’t have a fence, so every single time one of us goes in my parents’ back yard, this dog is carrying on like he’s going to hop the fence and eat us. Even if that weren’t possible (I still say that dog could come on over if he really wanted to) one of the kids could stick a hand in the fence to “pat Puppy” and lose some fingers.
I was attacked by a dog when I was 3, and I’m terrified of them to this day. My mother was also attacked as a child and thus has a similar phobia, though she’s certainly braver than I.
She and I have been discussing how to handle the issue. A fence is the obvious answer. I, as a renter, can’t exactly fence my lawn, but she could fence hers. And it would make life so much easier if the kids had a fenced yard to play in. Part of the reason I want to buy a house is so I can have a fence. Wood is what I’m envisioning. A wood privacy fence. In the case of my parents’ yard, it’d solve all of the dog problems, too – Snarly Dog couldn’t leap over it, and Crop Duster Dog couldn’t get through it to use the yard as his toilet.
Then Mom says, offhand, “Not wood, of course. I want a metal fence.”
She’s not talking chain link, either; she means like a decorative fence. Which would keep the children in, yes, but it wouldn’t necessarily keep the dogs out. It wouldn’t keep my kids from getting bitten on the hand, either. And it would do nothing for the other creatures she wants to keep out – snakes, mice, cats, skunks, armadillos. (Yes, I’ve seen all of the above in my yard. No, I do not live in the country.)
Well, it might work against the armadillos.
I let it go, but I was definitely confused. Why a metal fence? They’re gorgeous, yes. But expensive. And provide no privacy whatsoever.
A few days later, we were talking about the situation once more, and she explained. Wood fences need to be maintained. She doesn’t want something Dad has to maintain. Also, wood draws termites. They’ve already had to have the garage treated for termites, because of a wood pile that was left by the back door when we moved in. All in all, wood is more trouble than she wants to take on.
I understand now. And what she says makes perfect sense. I was thinking in terms of my kids, and my dog phobia. I was not thinking of her needs and Dad’s abilities. I just assumed that what I wanted was what she wanted.
And that’s what a lot of assumptions are: Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but then continuing on your path rather than following theirs. That’s why they fall down, assumptions. Because it’s not just about footwear.
Another type of assumption I need to stop making: Deciding what sort of mood someone is in based on nonverbal cues, and reacting accordingly. First of all, I suck at nonverbal cues. I have difficulty parsing facial expressions sometimes, and definitely miss most hints and innuendos. But also, people don’t go around plotting their every twitch and tic for maximum effect. Sometimes they cross their arms because they’re cold.
A more specific example: I remember once, while shopping with my mom, becoming suddenly, overwhelmingly irritated because she began jingling her keys. Typically, she jingles her keys because she is impatient and/or bored. We were shopping for me, not her, and I took the jingling as a sign that she wanted me to hurry up. Which made me cranky, because if there is one thing that annoys me, it’s being rushed.
So I snapped at her. And she had no idea why. She wasn’t trying to rush me at all. I’d concocted an entire argument based on a nervous habit.
For my part, I’d never even made the mental connection between her key jingling and feeling rushed until she asked me why I thought she was rushing me.
So much of communication is not only unspoken, but unconscious. My partner might be short with me not because I asked him to take out the trash, but because his back hurts. My kid might be having a meltdown not because she’s trying to play the sympathy card and get her way, but because she doesn’t feel well and is thus overly emotional.
When I drift off during a conversation, it’s not because I’m bored – it’s because I’ve suddenly remembered something I need to get from the store. That goes double for when I pull my phone out during a conversation. I am listening to you, really. But I need to write down what I just remembered so I don’t lose it again. (Yes, life is that hectic. I’m trying to get a better handle on it, but so far, I’m failing.)
I’ve always heard that assuming makes an ass out of u and me. I don’t know about u, but it’s certainly led me to don a posterior-shaped chapeau from time to time. And I’m just not a hat person. So from now on, I’m going to work on catching these assumptions as I make them, before they do any damage.