Updated on 09.08.10

The Danger of Assumption

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a guy who had a large scar on his neck that looked like a swastika. The man had it partially covered with a turtleneck on a hot day. I could have easily assumed that he was a “scary” member of a fringe group, but I was sitting next to him and said hello anyway. The man seemed thrilled that someone was speaking to him, and soon I found out that he had actually been branded while serving a prison term for a car accident he had been in when he was nineteen. He was having a great deal of difficulty saving up the money to get the scar fixed. Rather than hating the man, I wound up having a lot of sympathy for his situation. He made one stupid move as a teenager and is now suffering for life because of it.

That incident has left me thinking a great deal about all of the things I assume in my own life. So often, I make assumptions about others, usually out of a need to make faster decisions. Sometimes, those assumptions are flat-out wrong, and those assumptions cost me in a lot of ways. They cost me money. They cost me time. They cost me pride and self-confidence, too. They cost me respect as well.

I’ll make assumptions about reader emails because I have 250 of them to read and only a couple of hours in which to do it (do the math there). I’ll make assumptions about what the real intent of people marketing their product to me actually is – are they shills? Do they actually have a product that’s worthwhile that they genuinely believe in? I make assumptions when I write – I assume often that the audience already knows certain things and to reiterate them would just be a waste.

Each of these assumptions seem like a good idea on the surface. However, if I make the wrong assumption, I pay for it. I lose readers. I lose respect. I lose opportunities. I lose time. I lose motivation.

Yet, without at least some assumptions, I would be utterly stuck in analysis paralysis. I would not be able to move forward with any speed with anything in my life.

You likely make assumptions in your own life as well. We all do it. Most of the time, assumptions are time-savers that enable us to deal with a lot more of our lives. We assume that certain stores have lower prices. We assume that the people in the cars around us will make sensible traffic moves. We assume that the scary person on the bus is actually pretty scary and should be avoided. We look at people, decide who they are quickly, and make snap decisions on whether to avoid them. We pull one sentence out of someone’s long speech or document and assume that one sentence defines everything.

All of these assumptions are mistakes that can cost us money and time and energy. I’ve been thinking long and hard about how I can improve my own issues with assumptions, and here are some of the things I’ve come up with.

Don’t react with emotion. If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, rather than just reacting with pure emotion, ask yourself why you’re reacting that way. Did you see what you thought you saw? Is that really the whole picture? Look again and quell your initial emotional response.

Restate what you think the case is. If you’re going to disagree, state why you’re disagreeing with someone. Often, you’ll find that you’ve misunderstood what you’re disagreeing with, either due to poor communication skills on the other side’s part or due to poor listening skills on your own part.

Strive to be very clear with your own words. Try to eliminate any vagueness from your own statements. The more clear you are with what you’re trying to say or represent, the more clear it will be for the people who are listening to you.

Listen instead of merely waiting for an opportunity to respond. When you hear something you don’t like, it’s very easy to shut your ears or eyes and just look for an opportunity to respond without hearing the whole statement. When you see an aspect of a person you don’t like, it’s easier to run away or practice avoidance than it is to see the whole picture. You’re better off getting the full picture before responding.

If someone makes a statement that doesn’t seem to fit, ask for clarification. Often, it’s just a mis-statement or a misunderstanding. This is especially true if the person you’re talking to has a long history of sensible and positive remarks.

Listen to clarifications and accept them. Again, many a misstatement and assumption have damaged relationships, jobs, and countless other things without need. When someone tries to clarify their statement, let them clarify and accept their clarification.

Realize that no one is perfect. I’m not. You’re not. No one else is. Everyone makes misstatements and everyone makes false assumptions. Look for times when other people do this and let it go. Forgive them for it.

Realize that you don’t have to do everything and that slower is often better. Yes, quite often in modern life, it’s impossible to slow down and take more time with assumptions. However, the more time you put into the important things, the more benefit you’ll get out of it every time. You’ll see the assumptions more clearly and find the right way to work through them. Everyone benefits from that – especially you.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my own life based on assuming too much or assuming incorrectly. All I can do about it is strive to do better in the future. I hope you’ll join me in that.

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  1. Alex says:

    I agree with these ideas. Incorrect assumptions and misunderstanding are great hindrances to opportunities for positive relationships. This concept comes up multiple times as the root of conflict in many books, videos, and, of course, real situations. The paradoxical aspect is that all the assumptions you make can never be wrong in your perspective, because if they were wrong you wouldn’t have made them in the first place. Evidently, uncertainty plagues most, if not all, of our decisions. Thus, I agree with the conclusion. As an extension, I think that our actions must be moderated in consideration of uncertainty, especially those that might potentially harm others.

  2. If I feel that I’m making assumptions, there are also a few people I turn to for advice whose opinion I trust and value. It only helps though if they will be objective and not merely offering me confirmation that I’m right and the other person is wrong.

  3. Linda says:

    Did you know that the swastika originally was a sacred hindi symbol of luck? I don’t know why it was adopted by the Nazis…

    I certainly would have been too afraid to speak to this man. If the situation really requested it, I would have said “hello” because it would have been the polite thing to do, but I would have felt very uneasy. And I don’t think I’d have had any sympathy for him.

    I counted *two* wrong moves in his life (the car accident being the first), and being nineteen don’t justify his mistakes. Young is not synonymous with unconscious in my book and at nineteen you’re a young adult, not a teenager. I suppose (oops, assumptions right ahead!) he was not sent to jail because he forgot to fasten his seat belt? He must have violated driving rules and caused one or several deaths. And unless he’s never set foot in a classroom and lived in a cave for his entire life, he *knew* what this cross represented. He just didn’t get it branded on his neck because it looked cool. It’s a good thing that he regrets it *now*, but I don’t think he deserves to be pitied.

    Back to the point of this post, in many cases I agree that one shouldn’t make too hasty assumptions: I’ve often noticed that people who made me a great first impression did not prove to be so nice on better acquaintance and vice versa :) But it also happened that I didn’t listen to my instinct when it sent me a red signal…and I bitterly regretted it.

    So I guess the wise choice would be to trust my instinct to some extent but not blindly follow it. Try to obtain as much information as I can before drawing conclusions.

    That’s what *I* try to put in practice, but lately I’ve been confronted to *a lot* of people who made assumptions about me and didn’t seem to even hear *my* clarifications. Their prejudices were so deeply ingrained that there could be no reasoning with them. When this happens I usually prefer to change subject, saving my breath, time and sanity :)

  4. Linda says:

    I’m sorry, I reread your post and I’m afraid I misunderstood the “branded” part. It wasn’t a swastika after all? Is it a mark that is left on every prisoner by the prison staff? I’m not familiar at all with the American incarceration system (I’m French), if someone would be kind enough to enlighten me?

    Anyway I sincerely apologize for…well, making a false assumption. Please forget about the first half of my rant, the rest is still valid. Or so I think. Oh well :)

  5. Katie says:

    I’m sorry, I reread your post and I’m afraid I misunderstood the “branded” part. It wasn’t a swastika after all? Is it a mark that is left on every prisoner by the prison staff? I’m not familiar at all with the American incarceration system (I’m French), if someone would be kind enough to enlighten me?

    No, it was a swastika, not an official prison mark. However, it’s not safe to assume that he chose to get it. Prisons in the U.S. are often dominated by gangs that subsume – forcibly, generally – new inmates based on ethnic group. For white inmates, this often means neo-Nazi gangs. Prisoners are branded or tattooed* using ink in smuggled pens, and expected to pay “rent” of some sort or another (not money but whatever kind of capital they can muster) to the gang leaders.

    If this sounds horrific, it’s because it is. It’s allowed to go on through some combo of lack of resources and apathy. I don’t know what the underlying circumstances of the car crash in question were. Probably it was related to driving under the influence (if it was, it wouldn’t necessarily have needed to result in someone’s death to lead to jail time), which is a terrible mistake indeed. However, it doesn’t automatically follow that the guy deserved the kinds of abuses that are often meted out at the hands of fellow inmates in prison. Even if he does, in some cosmic sense, “deserve” it, that’s a pretty brutal way of dealing out justice.

    * Incidentally, this helps contribute to the high recidivism rates we see in the U.S. and is a good way for career criminals to create more career criminals who are tied to them. Good luck finding legal employment with that kind of brand or tattoo after you get out, even if you find an employer that would be willing to take a chance on a felon otherwise.

  6. Laurie says:

    My goodness Linda. A bit harsh and judgmental perhaps? We don’t know what the man did when he was 19, but we have all made huge mistakes in our youth. Just in varying degrees. I know I am a completely different person now than I was at 19. They probably burned the symbol into his neck in prison. Sounds like it was against his will, but who knows? Perhaps he allowed them to do it to prove allegiance so he wouldn’t get his a** beat every day. People often do very dumb things when they’re young (and 19 is young). Sometimes they do things to go along with a group even if they don’t understand or truly believe in what the group is about. It doesn’t mean he is a horrible person and should spend the rest of his life being judged for a terrible mistakes made in his youth.

  7. Debbie M says:

    Mostly I like this entry. However, I’ve read many times that if you feel like something is scary or isn’t right, then you should listen to that feeling even if you can’t explain why because it could save your life. Apparently we sometimes notice important details subconsciously.

    However, when dealing with friends and loved ones, definitely question everything that you’re inclined to just dismiss or hate. Even if you still don’t like whatever the seemingly negative thing was, you’ll probably hear something new. And if you see someone important reacting in a surprising way to something, do ask them about it.

    You can also have some fun with assumptions. When people (like, say, your fellow drivers) are doing something seemingly crazy (like swerving all over their lane), try assuming that they have some good (or understandable) reason for it (like they just noticed a bee to which they are deathly allergic). It certainly makes life more pleasant. And fun–you have to get pretty creative to explain away some people’s actions!

  8. J.O. says:

    @ Linda

    I think your statement that being 19 means a person is a young adult, not a teenager, makes some big assumptions.

    We are all a product of our genes, upbringing, life circumstances, and experiences. Some of us are lucky in one or more of those areas, and might be adults by age 19. Others of us struggle to grow up by middle age if we are unlucky enough to have a bad start.

    If you’ve been lucky with the factors you couldn’t control in your life, be thankful …

  9. J.O. says:

    @ Alex

    As you pointed out, we can be guilty of making assumptions that we cannot even recognize as assumptions. That makes it hard to correct them!

    Good, thoughtful treatment of this topic, in my opinion, Trent.

  10. alilz says:

    There is some research showing that the brains of young adults — even 19 year olds- are not fully developed and that’s often why you see them doing dumb things where you think they should know better.

    It’s interesting in this post about assumptions that Linda assumed that the brand was a *choice* when there is no way to know that. As Katie said, often brands and tattoos are forced on to other prisoners.

    Also there’s no way to know if this person did something wrong and that’s why he ended up in jail. There are plenty of innocent people who end up in jail and even serve very long sentences and it’s not as rare as you might think.

  11. Sandy says:

    Great article Trent. I have been following your blog for a wee while now, and for the most part I find it helpful and interesting.
    This one however seems to be quite timely, talking about assumptions, in that for the most part you seem to assume that you are talking to other Americans all the time – and not a worldwide audience!
    By this I mean that a lot of advice – particularly when doing the reader mailbag – is aimed directly at other Americans. For instance – what the heck is a 401k? I wouldn’t have a clue – I live in New Zealand :-)
    Anyway, as I said, most of your stuff is great – keep up the good work.

  12. Linda says:

    @Katie: Thank you for your explanation, it helped me to see things in another light. Indeed I should have considered that the tattoo may have been forced on him, not chosen. If that was the case I certainly don’t think he deserved such abuse from his fellow inmates, such practices are really horrible. The only time I used the word “deserved” was in relation to the sentence he got for causing the car accident.

    @J.O: And I think you’re slightly misinterpreting my comment :) In my opinion being an adult (young or not) doesn’t mean that you’re never wrong or never make bad decisions. It just means that unless you’re mentally disabled, you *have* lived long enough to have a general picture of what’s wrong and what’s right. If you decide to make the wrong choice anyway -fine, but you will have to take your responsibilities.

    Life experiences, poverty, bad upbringing can explain why someone commits a crime but they don’t excuse them. Or nobody would be held accountable for their crimes anymore, because behind every action there’s always a “valid” reason (you steal because you’re poor. You hit or kill someone because they really made you angry…You rape that girl because you thought her miniskirt was an invitation, although she screamed “No, no, no!!”)

    @alilz: This is really disturbing. If this research is reliable, 16 year-old-American teenagers definitely shouldn’t be allowed to drive! But I recognize my mistake in not thinking that the brand could have been imposed. There’s no way to tell if it was or not with the information we’ve got.

    As for the car accident, Trent said that the man made “a stupid move” when he was younger, not that he was wrongly sentenced…that sounds like he DID something wrong, even if the price he’s still paying might be higher (the scar which probably considerably hinders his job/soulmate/friends searches) than the original fault required.

    @Debbie M.: On a lighter note, your comment really made me laugh. I remember one day walking to a bus stop and seeing a woman waiting there starting to jump all around the place. I thought she was mad, then I recognized her and when I greeted her, she told me that a rat had just run before her. It was early morning and rather dark so I couldn’t see it from afar. I liked this explanation better :)

  13. It is a sad story… I hope he can fix it soon.

    Related to assumptions, quick assumptions are the way our brain is trained to solve problems quickly (or so it thinks). Usually assumptions hit the mark, and we save a lot of time without wasting it thinking in the question. The problem is that a lot of times we can fail miserably, and we have to waste time later on.

    We should *decide* whether to assume something or just think about it, and don’t simply go with our thinking flow.


  14. AndreaS says:

    I have noticed that people tend to wrongly judge others current actions in the light of their past behavior. As an example, when my husband goes to the post office to get our mail, he sometimes gets sidetracked for up to an hour talking to someone he meets there. This is annoying to me, if he said he would be right back, and in the meantime I was counting on his return for some reason. So now when he is not home when I expect, I am inclined to think he was just chatting with someone, have gotten irritated, only to later learn he might have had some other legitimate reason to be delayed.

    I have noticed my adult children also making assumptions about their siblings, as they judge the siblings current actions based on who their sibling were two years ago. My daughter has been away from home for a year, going to college and working a summer job. In the year or two before she left home she was typical of many at that age. She was difficult, assumed no one could do anything right except her, and didn’t give any of us the time of day. But a year has transpired, and she is likely moving on that spectrum of growing up and becoming a bit nicer. However, when she comes home, her siblings interpret her actions based on their experience of her a year ago. Her siblings may or may not be right in their assumptions, we don’t know. I just remind them to forgive her for being 19.

    A Dr. Phil-ism is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. I believe that, and don’t want to go around being naive. But I have also observed a number of situations where individuals are wrongly judged today, based on their past. If we don’t like someone, we notice only when they do something wrong, and tend to overlook when they do something right. And conversely, we overlook the same flaws in people we do like.

    So I don’t know what any of this has to do with saving money, except that I have wasted energy on some wrong assumption, and noticed others doing the same. This junk can take up space in our heads, when we would be better off reading through some tedious government website figuring out how to get a tax rebate.

  15. DougR says:

    Well, I’m in my 60s, and the parade of assumptions I make daily that I’m STILL learning to question–assumptions about other people and/or about my predictive assumptions (“If I do X, Y will happen”) that govern choices I make and behavior toward myself and others–is endless. It never stops, folks!

    I’d like to echo the one point made above (Debbie M) regarding feelings/intuitions about unsafe and/or dangerous situations or people. There, I ALWAYS follow my intuition and extract myself from creepy situations or people as soon as possible.

    Otherwise, I’m trying to learn to deal with assumptions by first asking myself, “Is it TRUE?” (maybe, maybe not) and “Do I KNOW it’s true?” (How? Why?). Lots of the assumptions I make about people fall into this category, and if I don’t KNOW my assumption is really true, I’m able to imagine other outcomes than disaster or humiliation.

    Thanks for the post, Trent, and thanks for the blog, which I find incredibly useful.

  16. You might want to expand this post to demonstrate how assumptions represent risks and to also show how they are constraints. Further thoughts at http://bit.ly/9WRgCG

  17. Wally says:

    Interesting book on this subject is Blink by Malcolm gladwell. The book is all about making quick decisions and whether those decisions are right or wrong.

  18. Wayne says:

    Blink is the definitive work on this topic.

  19. valleycat1 says:

    I differ from Trent, as I mostly assume other drivers (and pedestrians) will do something unexpected or unsafe, which keeps me more on my toes when driving & has enabled me to avoid a number of accidents.

  20. Love the Assumptions post. It reminds me of something I wrote years ago for a volunteer association I was running (which was much troubled by the tendency to be sure what other volunteers really meant by what they did):

    The problem with an assumption is that it feels exactly like a fact until proved wrong. (Think of a rake lying tines-up in the grass. If you step on the tines, you’re likely to assume — based on the report from your booted foot that you have stepped on something small and insignificant — that you’re perfectly safe. An instant later, of course, this assumption will be shattered by the rake handle smacking into your forehead….)

  21. Very thoughtful post. One additionl thought came to mind that summarized what you were saying: RESPECT. If we respect everyone we meet we are less likely to jump to conclusions, recogize that their past may not be their present, and generally treat them with dignity and good manners. No matter who they are this then will make us a better person.

  22. Kathy Robinson says:

    I very much agree with #5 Debbie’s post–I respect my intuition and gut feelings and even when I choose not to act on them, I remain alert to them and consider them as valid–especially when I am in a new situation with new people.

    If many people do miss opportunities or get themselves in various sorts of problems due to making assumptions, I believe many others do so by dismissing or acting against their gut feelings.

    I wonder, is this a gender difference? (ie, Women’s intuition–many times there’s some truth in stereotypes.)

  23. Mandolin says:

    I strongly disagree with the post but Trent I maintain positive feelings for you. I agree with Debbie about subconscious processing. My experience…..after moving to a large city, seeing aggressive and psychotic homeless persons, after random crazy person, after child molestors (literally I saw men negotiating the sale of a child and yes I called the police), after violent kids who attack people for their ipod on public transport. I realized that I should always use my intuition here. If I feel scared of someone…even if I can’t say why…I get off the metro section where they are seated or I cross the street. I am not afraid of anyone of a particular race or religion. I wouldn’t necessarily be afraid of a guy with a swastica even if he had put it there purposefully. Youth make a lot of bad decisions and these things don’t reflect who there are. Furthermore few racists actually attack people in public…atleast I have never heard of that here. I wouldn’t give my street address to him or anything but I would not avoided him because of tattoos. I cannot say how I would have felt about that guy having not had seen him. I do agree that it was better not to judge that guy in this instinct. But I go with my gut instinct and I avoid people I am afraid of. Facial expressions and body language are really important to me for making these judgments. I maintain the idea that if something feels off I avoid them even if I have no idea what feels off. Our brain uses a lot of information to make snap judgments to protect us. I may miss a beautiful person here and there but I accept that loss as simply a way to protect myself. I promote this idea to everyone and in particular women…if something feels off…avoid them. Just my two cents.

  24. Michelle says:

    Regarding gut instinct

    Yeah instincts can save you in some situations and I certainly rely on them to guide me in situations where I might be in danger. But I don’t believe the bulk of Trent’s post is dealing with instances where bodily harm is a real possibility.

    There’s a difference between assumptions that can save your life and assumptions that can damage your relationships.

    A menacing stranger on a dark street and you’re alone? You’re reacting with fear and there are some very rational reasons for doing so. It’s better to be safe than sorry. I don’t think Trent was advocating that you walk up to the stranger and introduce yourself.

    Or his original example. Under the same circumstances, I probably wouldn’t say hello because I’m a woman and that can sometimes open an unintended can of worms (more so when I was younger and better-looking ;)). But I’d have no problem giving a friendly smile to someone, even a scary-looking man, in a public place with other people around. I know I’m reading more into Trent’s experience than might have actually occurred… I’m making some *gasp* assumptions.

    I once knew a nice guy who also happened to be a full-on biker, complete with the Harley, gun, beard and tattoos. Before I got to know this particular biker, he would have scared the pants off of me. Preconceived notions; judging a book by it’s cover, etc. Sometimes it’s valid; sometimes it’s not.

    But, I think, to focus only on danger instincts is to conveniently ignore the larger point of the post which to protect and improve your relationships. His first point is, for me, the most important. Why am I reacting (emotionally) to this situation? I try to examine what is driving that reaction and whether or not it’s a valid interpretation of the situation. Once emotion is out of the way, then I can take steps to prevent assumptions from harming my relationships.

    A couple personal examples:

    I grew up in Los Angeles. In the first week after I’d moved to Portland, OR (a lovely, friendly town), a stranger on the street smiled and said hello. Being an Angeleno, my knee-jerk reaction was “what does he want from me?” (Emotion – wariness.) To be approached by a stranger in LA, even a well-dressed, normal looking man, meant that he was about to ask for something. My past experiences were coloring my interpretation of the current situation. Turns out, he was just being friendly. What an alien concept. That one incidence taught me a lot about my expectations of strangers and actually changed my perspective a lot.

    My second example echoes AndreaS’s point. My brother and I butted heads a lot when I was a teenager (he’s 8 years older so he was an adult). One part of his view of me is that I’m a bad driver from my admittedly wild and stupid teenage driving years. Fast forward more than a decade and my car, the same one I’d been driving ticket and accident-free for 10 years, was totaled when I was rear-ended in an accident that was not my fault. Literally, the first words out of my brother’s mouth when he called were “what did you do?” (Emotion – irritation, blame.) My reply was a dry “I’m fine, thanks for asking.” In his mind, I will never be a good driver but more importantly, I doubt he will ever question whether any of his assumptions about me are still valid. And it has certainly affected our relationship.

  25. Mule Skinner says:

    I made a big mistake at age 18: I joined the military*. The government evidently considered me adult since they allowed me to sign a contract obligating myself for four years.

    (* but it was a positive experience overall)

  26. An awesome book on why you should listen to your intuition – and make assumptions – in some situations is “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker.

    One thing that’s helped me with dealing with others who are not strangers is Walt Whitman’s advice which goes something like “never blame on malice what can be explained by stupidity” and I’d extend ‘stupidity’ to meaning that sometimes you’re just dealing with someone who doesn’t know any better – which possibly could apply to the young tattooed guy. But it also applies in situations like where you have people who you have difficulty communicating with – eg. the boss who doesn’t seem empathetic etc. may just have borderline Aspergers – who knows? One could assume that they’re just a jerk, but that may not be the case.

  27. littlepitcher says:

    The fallacy in the Whitman line is that, especially in the American South, stupidity usually is a huge component of malice, and malice may be the dominant force of the stupid.
    An amateur brand/tattoo can be covered up by another of the same, often for cheap or for free. Amateur tattoo artists abound at the lower levels of society. This man may have been sincerely ashamed of the swastika, but there is also a good chance that he told Trent what Trent wanted to hear, based on Trent’s middle-class/non-Nazi appearance. Neo-Nazi movements are generally a rural, working class, criminal phenomenon in most areas of America, and Trent undoubtedly looked disqualified.
    As one of the small army of uninsured, I can and will avoid anyone who appears stupid, malicious, or violent, unless I am required to associate with them temporarily, on the job. Frugality.

  28. chacha1 says:

    I agree with valleycat1. :-) I always assume that drivers around me are panicky nitwits who are paying no attention to the task at hand. This mindset has kept me safe for a long time.

    However, I also agree with Trent. It’s all too easy to assign motives and back-stories to the people we’re dealing with. But the truth is, we don’t know what their motives or stories are. We know less about people than we think … even people we know very well.

  29. Alan says:

    I am late to the party on this, but I wanted to chime in. Much of the comment seems to be on the first part of the post, but I very much appreciated the last part of the post.

    I belong to a local Toastmasters club. Most people think we focus solely on public speaking. While that is what draws people in, I have found that I have learned more about leadership and general communication than public speaking. Trent’s advice for communication is “spot on” and well taken, whether fighting assumptions or just trying to communicate effectively. I especially like the advice to ask for clarification if something seems amiss. It is often simply a mistatement. Good work Trent.

  30. Jessica says:

    Great post! It is tough not to assume. When my “gut” tells me to be cautious, I become very cautious.

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