Sunday, July 19, 2009

Assumptions and labels

If you ever want to see the entertaining sight of steam coming out of my ears, start slapping some labels on me. It never fails to get me hot under the collar and has ever since I was quite young. Whether it is a good label or a bad label, it almost never fails to chafe. I've known this about myself for a very long time, but I never parsed out the reasons why. It always leads to assumptions, which frequently are incorrect and can in turn lead to very unwelcome outcomes.

My first memories around this came from when I was 5 or 6 years old. I was introduced to someone, who leaned over and talked to me as if I were the village idiot simply because of my age. I don't remember who it was or what they said precisely, but I do remember fuming at the way I had been patronized. I'm sure that I couldn't have described it then beyond the fact that I didn't like being treated like a baby, but I clearly remember feeling insulted. Now the person obviously hadn't planned to insult me. It would have never occurred to them that it was even possible. They were merely acting out of their assumptions based on the label 'little girl' that I was carrying at the time. The same sort of things have happened throughout my life as the label has changed from 'girl' to 'young woman' to just plain 'female.' Depending on what assumptions are attached to the labels, my resultant response has ranged from slight annoyance to extreme irritation, especially if it has led to my being disregarded because of them.

At a slightly different angle, I find that I bristle when confronted with the assumption that I don't know my own mind or mean what I say. For the life of me, I can't figure out what purpose this might serve. In fact, I can't see anything but difficulties arising from that. Real fireworks can be seen whenever I hear the words, "you don't mean that." Given that I generally don't say things that I don't mean, this feels like it has to be some sort of self-serving position taken by the speaker. (Don't want to assume that, however.) This one rose up again recently when I decided to stop seeing someone. I meant what I said about not wanting to see him any more the first time I said it. And every time I repeated it for almost 5 months. And it makes me wonder why some people assume that 'A' means 'B' when 'A' is the only thing that has consistently been said. It seems like a sort of deliberate miscommunication, which kind of boggles the mind. It's difficult enough to communicate without making it more so.

I think my allergic reaction to labels increased in adulthood because of all the assumptions that were hung on labels that I more or less had accepted. I ran headlong into one of those right after I got married. All the people that I had hung out with, went to movies with, or just did regular things with, all assumed that I was no longer available. It blew my mind. I was immediately dropped from standing invitations and I had to chase folks down to clear up the matter. Apparently, I was supposed to be fused to my husband and not do anything on my own. This only increased once my sons were born. I had apparently disappeared and could not have a separate identity. That was an extremely difficult labeling assumption to dodge and, at times, I let myself get buried under it, which was truly unfair to everyone. Similar labels and assumptions came attached to my choice in jobs, education and spirituality. And they almost always missed the mark. The labels were too broad and the assumptions too all-encompassing to have any real meaning.

I have no clear idea why most of us, if not all, compartmentalize others based on assumptions. Perhaps it is nothing more than a sorting function in our brains to help us make a semblance of order out of the overwhelming possibilities that exist in our world. But the outcome of it can move well beyond the realm of irritation and cause real damage to our relationships and unnecessary stress in our lives. This can happen based on the labels we attach to others, or based on how we connect assumptions between different people. If one of our parents employed disapproving silences to control our behavior, we might assume that similar silences mean the same thing in other relationships. If someone in our past abused our trust with lies, we might assume that either no one is to be trusted or perhaps that everyone lies. If we have been manipulated in the past, we may believe that others are trying to do it to us again. The examples could go on and on. And how sad that is for all parties involved.

But what's to be done about it? I suspect a lot of it is done unconsciously, based on past experiences. And I imagine that a portion of that is done out of self-preservation and fear of repeating a bad experience. Perhaps the only thing we can try to do is to slow down and consider those around us, recognizing that they are unique in our experience. By being slow to assume, we don't need to risk ourselves unnecessarily, merely allow enough time for the other to reveal themselves in more depth, which in its turn could allow for more depth in the relationship we have with them. If we look at each new person with an active curiosity as to who they are, rather than quickly labeling and pigeonholing them, we open up new possibilities. And if we look at older relationships without the filter of assumptions, we give others the opportunity to reveal pleasant surprises about themselves. And, should we find things that we'd rather not see in them, at least we have a firmer basis for any decision we make.

"Assumptions are the termites of relationships." -- Henry Winkler.


Knitman said...

Often being in a wheelcahir, I know precisely what you feel! I did before hand but really being in the chair really shows people up for their assumptions! Like I must be a moron too. Oh and of course the assumptions people make about John and i, what we 'do' and who is the wife! ARGHHHH!

having said all that, I make assumptions. It's easy and I try to catch myself.

Paul said...

More and more, I don't believe it's assumptions as much as misinterpretations. I believe it's a problem crossing the communication cloud, that space between what you said and what I hear, what you intended and how I take it to be.

If we're on the same page, we're within that same cloud and I understand what you're saying. The problem happens when we're in the cloud 99.44% of the time... and then we're out of it for some critical piece of communication. Then the connection is missed, and misinterpretation begins.

"The apple is red."

That's where I'm seeing the bulk of communication breakdown these days.

My 2c.