My first office job was at a university, and it’s an environment I’ve felt at home in ever since. There were many things I learnt in that job, but one important life lesson came from an extremely kind academic who taught on the leisure and tourism courses. We were discussing data collection for timetabling and, as an eager 23 year old who was new to the job, I admitted I’d made an assumption about how she’d wanted to proceed. Instantly she switched into lecturer mode and wrote the word ASSUME on the notepad in front of us. “Do you know what happens when you assume things?” she asked. Being a somewhat naive person whose only experience of the world so far was studying art and design and working in retail, I was completely unaware of the cliche I had walked into. “You just end up making an ASS out of U and ME,” she explained, underlining the relevant letters as she spoke. This may have been the first time I’d heard this, but it most certainly wasn’t the last!
Even though most of us try very hard not to, we do still make assumptions about people based on unconscious bias. We might make an effort not to make assumptions based purely on how someone looks, but it takes a while to undo social conditioning. Also, some of the tiny assumptions we make can turn out to be true more often than not, so it then becomes even harder to act against them. For example, when I scour a train carriage or bus for an empty seat, I am also looking to see if whoever is sat on either side might make my journey more uncomfortable than if I was standing. There will be obvious cues that I should avoid the empty seat (for example, if it’s near someone watching/listening to something without headphones), but there are often more subtle ones too. Will my seat neighbours be women (more likely to be safe) or men? If men, are they desperately trying to make eye contact (often a bad sign in London!) and how are they dressed (i.e. do they give a shit about their appearance)? The longer the journey, the more important these assumptions are. I don’t want to judge my fellow commuters but, let’s be honest here, so many of them have turned out to be inconsiderate arseholes who have spoiled things for everyone.
I was also reminded recently that I often make assumptions about what is and isn’t basic knowledge. Nine years of working at an arts university have left me with a slightly warped view of this too, as I’m surrounded by so many colleagues who have an in depth knowledge of fashion and the creative arts that I began to think that this is commonplace. I forgot that not everyone was taught how to sew when they were growing up, or took Art & Design at school past the age of 14. When I gave a colleague (who was new to the institution) a tour of some of the buildings that London College of Fashion occupies across the city, I discovered that she’d never seen a sewing machine before. Her first ended up being one that is used to make shoes! On that day I spent hours telling her about how clothes and footwear are made, how paper patterns are used by home sewers, how making underwear is so very different to making a dress, how particular fabrics/fibres behave when sewn/worn, how patterns are graded… I forgot just how much of my knowledge is very specialist! When a friend signed up for an evening class in interior design, but was confused by the equipment list she’d been sent, again I was surprised that I’d made assumptions about other people’s levels of knowledge. I explained to her what the types of pens and pencils were, and why she was being asked to bring a scalpel and cutting mat. As someone who chose drama as her arts subject at GCSE (and had never worked in WH Smith – I forget how much I learnt there!), this was all so very alien to her.
I’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about trying not to assume things in all my relationships too (particularly friendships and romantic/sexual relationships) and how I’m still not brilliant at that, even though I’m trying really hard to be. Just as no one can assume consent based on previous actions, assuming that a relationship will pan out a certain way because all the ones you’ve had in the past have (or because you’ve been brought up thinking that), can be harmful. The only way to know if you’re on the same page as a friend or partner is to talk about it – have those conversations that might be awkward at first (especially if you’re British!) and communicate openly with each other. Once you get in your own head too much, assumptions based on whatever limited information you have will take over and, sadly, none of us are mind readers so this will inevitably turn out badly. It’s something that I still find creeping back in occasionally though, and I really need to keep an eye out for that – just because X happened, doesn’t mean that Y and Z will follow. However, even though I know all too well what happens when you rely on assumptions, I often need to remind myself that it’s always ALWAYS better to ask. Ask the other person for the piece of information that you’re missing, or ask yourself why you’re jumping to conclusions in the first place. Just like 23-year-old me discovered in that academic’s office, a little self awareness often goes a long way.