Getting Rid of Assumption and Meaning

by Dan on September 26, 2009

Two habits we tend to fall into are assumption and interpretation. These actually do not sound so bad on the surface, so I’ll help point to where these mental actions cause us problems.

Assumption is when you make a fact-based conclusion from the information in front of you.

Interpretation is when you make a meaning-based conclusion from the information in front of you.

Example:  Your lunch is missing from the refrigerator at work.  Your assumption might be that someone in your office ate it.  Your interpretation would be that you’re not respected by your coworkers.

Another example:  Your boyfriend doesn’t call you on your birthday.  Your assumption is that he forgot.  Your interpretation is that he doesn’t care about you.

Our problems with assumptions and interpretations mostly come from our need to make them prematurely and unnecessarily.  When an odd event happens, we hate being in a void of ambiguity, so we come up with a quick conclusion that breaks the tension loop we find ourselves in.

Here’s the problem…

Our assumptions are often wrong.  Our interpretations, however, are ALWAYS wrong.

Meaning is arbitrary, and even if there was a time where your office workers didn’t respect you, or your relationship was the pits, those things can change literally in an hour’s time.  They change so fast that by the time you come to your conclusion, the seasons have already changed and you’re stuck in a false view.

I’ll give you an example of what happened tonight, and how I was challenged to handle these traps myself.

I went out to the Tavern tonight and had an interesting experience.  While I was with my friends, I saw one of the waitresses  that work my local diner.  Christiana was her name.  I’m a regular there and have done some client meetings in the area, so I hve seen her.  It’s interesting to have a temporary change in the relationship context.  We were now social equals for the moment, instead of customer and employee.  I saw her in line outside, and when she walked in, I came up to say hi.

She walked right past me.

I thought it was odd, but I guess that if your mind is in another place, you can miss someone you recognize.

I tried to make eye contact with her a couple more times, but she still didn’t seem to see me.  It was as if I was invisible.

The thought crossed my mind, “Is she trying to avoid me?  Is she pretending she doesn’t see me?”

I took it as a possibility.

Finally, while she was at the bar and signing her tab, I tapped her on the arm and said, “Hey.”

No response.

This was getting weird.  I tapped her again and said “Hey Christiana.”  I tapped her once more, and she didn’t even turn her head.

At this point, it was clear to me that she was deliberately not acknowledging me.  I walked off.

Keep in mind that at this point, ALL I assumed was that she was ignoring me.  I didn’t assign meaning to this conclusion.  I made no attempt to interpret the evidence beyond what was appropriate.

Here are some possibilities that I was aware of:

1)    She could feel awkward seeing a customer in a social situation and be worried about appearing unprofessional.
2)    She could have an abusive boyfriend nearby that could get violent if he saw me talking to her.  Maybe she was looking out for me.
3)    She simply could be embarrassed to know me.

Instead of making an assumption of one of those three, I just let the conclusion stop at “She doesn’t want to talk to me, for whatever reason.”

Now consider how someone else might have taken the conclusion that Christian was ignoring him.  He might rush to assume that this means she doesn’t like him.

It wouldn’t end there, of course.

This person could create a global interpretation that women aren’t interested in him, in general.

From there he can come to the conclusion that since women aren’t interested in him, that he’s not a worthy human being.  And so on.

I was well aware that it was possible that Christiana did not like me, but I didn’t feel the need to investigate the matter if that was the case.  I know that if Christiana does not want her friends to see me talking to her, that it wouldn’t say anything about me.  It might not even say anything about her.  It just is.

As it turns out, she was not avoiding me.  As I was walking away, she said “Oh hey!” and waved at me.  I was a little surprised and came back to say hi.  She actually hadn’t even felt me tap her the first two times.  She is someone who perpetually has the look of someone whose thoughts are racing, so it seemed very reasonable for her to block out what’s going on around her.  This combined with alcohol could easily make a diner customer invisible, when she’s in a completely different context.

A sign of my progress was that I was not relieved when this explanation came out.  I was happy to see that she was friendly towards me, but I didn’t feel like I would have been at loss had the worst assumption been the true case.

I suggest in matters like this, you assume as little as possible, and NEVER take your conclusion to reflect the bigger picture of your own life.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Alex September 27, 2009 at 9:29 pm

great article!!! so true!!

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