assumption |əˈsəm(p)SHən| noun
1. a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof: they made certain assumptions about the market | [ with clause ] : we’re working on the assumption that the time of death was after midnight.
2. [archaic] arrogance or presumption.
Human beings – indeed, all living things – have a lot riding on their assumptions. The basics of living, for instance: our hearts beat, our oxygen-uptake apparatus continues to function while we’re asleep, and gravity pulls us towards the earth. We depend upon and assume these things so completely that we rarely consciously think about them. We only notice our hearts beating when the rhythm changes, such as after strenuous exercise, or that our lungs are supposed to be filling when they’re not. And in fact, this is true for all of our assumptions – we only notice them when something ceases to be what we expect it to be.
Unlike our necessary-for-life assumptions, the features of the world around us that we take for granted are not shared among us. They are personal to each of us, alone. I see a color as teal, and you see it as blue. Both of us assume that the color we are seeing is seen the same way by the other person. The fact that it’s not is interesting, but not otherwise a big deal. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if, in this particular case, our assumptions about the other person are wrong. And while we do notice when these assumptions are not what we expect, they carry too little freight for us to worry much about them.
We have medium-value assumptions, too. We assume the basic good-naturedness of our fellow humans; that if we smile at someone, he will smile back, or if we leave a coat somewhere, someone will turn it in, or if we pull up to a four-way stop sign, we will yield to one another in the order of who arrived first. (Okay, I realize I’m pushing it on that last one. Consider it your public service message for the day.) These assumptions are occasionally incorrect, but it takes a lot of lost coats, rude drivers, and unreturned smiles to rearrange them in any significant way. And again, these are really only noticed when they contrast with our expectations.
Large-value assumptions are where things get tricky. Despite the fact that science has proven time and again that our eyes are not the infallible, unbiased interpreters of the world around us that we take them to be, it is far too mentally taxing to assume otherwise. The sheer amount of information we are bombarded with forces us to take certain things for granted. We simply have to trust a number of assumptions, in nearly every situation. And in most situations, this trust is well-placed. But when it comes to how another person might be feeling, our eyes can trick us.
When a close friend is down, we can usually tell. In that case, our eyes help us a lot – they see a change in the normal presentation of our friend, and notice it, and ask our friend about it. But when it comes to people we don’t know, our assumption-making becomes far less reliable. Unable to perceive what is going on underneath what we assume to be someone’s normal demeanor, we project instead. If we are calm, we assume they are, too -until presented with evidence to the contrary. If we are sad, we think we see sadness everywhere. If we are intimidated, we see the power a person has over us – and overlay onto that person as though it were one of their inherent qualities, rather than a projection of our own insecurity.
I encountered an example of this very phenomenon in a new grad student fellowship group I started attending this week. (Sorry, book club, I’m just not ready to go back to you full-time, yet.) One of the grad students there had been the graduate teaching assistant for my first semester of chemistry. Chemistry graduate teaching assistants teach the discussion sections of the lower-level classes to the undergraduates. At the time, his intelligence intimidated me. He seemed confident in his role as instructor, and despite the fact that I had an easy fifteen years on him, if not more, I felt that he was “above” me in some way, probably due to the fact that chemistry was pretty challenging for me at the time.
But when I was chatting with him about our class, I discovered that he had been going through some considerable emotional turmoil at the time, and had been in danger of being kicked out of his graduate program. The man I saw before me was no longer my all-knowing GTA, but just another kid making his way through grad school in the best way he knew how. He suddenly seemed quite young, and I felt the power dynamic between us undergo a palpable shift. Now, I was the worldly older woman with an enviable (to him, anyway) set of life skills, and he was the novice finding his situation challenging.
Even more interesting, he probably felt no change in our relationship at all. He knew I was older than him (of course!), and his impression of me had been of someone driven to learn who always had a smile on her face and never gave her GTA any grief. Our assumptions about each other were, and probably continue to be, pretty off the mark. But again, it was completely unnoticeable, to either of us, until we ran up against their discordance. Or rather, unnoticeable to me until I ran up against that discordance. His assumptions held, and he likely remained unaware of them. Our experiences of the same exact situation were, and remain, completely different.
How much more often does this happen? How many other situations has my vaunted intuition misinterpreted so completely? How many situations am I in, right now, where my position and my perception are as distant from one another?
A professor in my major passed away unexpectedly a short while ago, sending the close-knit department reeling. But had I not had close relationships with a couple of the professors therein, I never would have known how troubled they were. In front of classrooms and in their interactions with students, the power imbalance of the relationship clothed them in obscurity; whatever emotions might have been going on underneath, the students couldn’t see past the professor-student dynamic. I noticed myself draping one of those same professors in this power dynamic, even though we have a working relationship outside of the class.
Which means that not only am I misinterpreting my positions, I’m also missing god-knows-what about the people around me. (Certainly, I’m aware that people are missing a whole lot about me.) I realize that the “me” I project to the world around me is perceived as normal. I feel I have has changed in significant and startling ways, which must thereby be visible to those around me, but clearly, that is not the case. People who meet me now have no idea that what they are seeing is any less physical well-being than I’ve ever had.
I have a friend who, before I met her, lost some 60 pounds. I tried to picture what she must have looked like before, and failed. Our eyes aren’t just unreliable, they’re stubborn and arrogant as well. It takes considerable effort to lift some of the burden of assumption upon them and levy it onto our imagination. But I think I need to start doing more of it. After all, how can I expect people to stop making assumptions about me if I don’t educate myself as to the energy required for me to stop making assumptions about them?
If you know someone is in a situation of pain – emotional or physical – try to drape them in it. Try to see it in them while you’re chatting about the weather. It’s almost impossible. I worry in my head that I’m not projecting enough discomfort, sometimes, and that people will doubt my sincerity when I talk about my pain. (Because, of course, other people are thinking about me all of the time.) Even when I encounter someone who is patently depressed and projecting a jaded and fatalistic attitude, a little voice inside my head gets annoyed after a while and thinks just give it a rest already, would you?
What we don’t much think about is that most people – even depressed people – don’t accurately project what’s going on inside them. What is presented instead is a watered-down, situationally-appropriate version of how they’re really feeling. I’m still in pain when I talk about digging my wool coat out of storage. My professors are still sad when they’re talking about the differences between mouse and chicken immune systems. And that depressed friend feels such deep sadness and hopelessness that jaded and fatalistic is about all she can manage.
Our eyes see our own emotions with amazing clarity. So we assume they see others’ emotions just as well. But they don’t. They’re more likely to layer ours on top of a supposed neutral state than to allow our imaginations to assert the more likely scenario of another struggling human, just doing the best he can.
We won’t ever know what another person is really thinking or feeling. But rather than assuming that what we see is the truth, maybe we should instead assume they’re just like us; with emotions veiled and pain corralled behind a fence. Assumptions aren’t necessarily a bad thing. We just need to be better at knowing when they can – and can’t – be trusted.