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Increase self-awareness: We can learn from the wrong assumptions made about us
Part 2 in "Explore Assumptions" series
When I was in my early 30s, working at my family’s newspaper and trying to figure out how to switch careers, I talked with “Margot,” a marketing manager at a large tech company. I told her about how I ran the region's largest Vietnamese newspaper, and how we tripled circulation and quadrupled distribution in one year under my leadership.
Margot then asked, “Do you have a college degree?"
I paused, shocked by her question.
"I have a Ph.D.,” I replied.
After the call, I was upset. Did Margot question my education level because I served a refugee community or because I worked in my family business? And why even ask me after I already shared my business achievements? I nursed a deep sense of indignation for years. I was convinced she underestimated me and my community.
It’s so easy to feel wronged by what we perceive as negative assumptions about ourselves. Our indignation then colors what we assume to be the intentions behind the actions of others. What we should ask is, “why do I feel this way?”
Exploring how we feel about wrong assumptions, that is, ones that turn out to be inaccurate or incorrect, can increase our self-awareness.
Here’s what I’ve learned when taking myself and others through the process of exploring how we feel about assumptions made about us.
Feel the pain and then reflect on it
Ask yourself: Think about a time someone made a wrong assumption about you. How did you feel about it? Why?
I assumed Margot asked about my educational background because she assumed I didn’t go to college. I assumed she felt she was better than me.
Years later, as I was starting to write about what I’ve learned from facilitating conversations around assumptions, I realized I had never asked her why she asked that question.
Margot’s question tapped into insecurities I held at that time in my career. I lacked confidence that I could work in the corporate world. Was she looking down on me? Would others, too?
When we don’t ask, we lose an opportunity to reflect and learn. A friend told me about a time when someone made a wrong assumption about him. Although it happened decades ago, the way he recounted the story was as clear as if it just occurred.
A white woman had said to him, “Let me guess, is your family Baptist?”
He said no and ended the conversation. He didn’t explain that his family followed Judaism for decades.
When I asked him why he thought she said that, he explained, “Many African American families are Baptist.” He is Black.
I asked, “Why are you upset?”
“Because she was wrong about me!” he said.
He was fixated on feeling hurt. He hadn’t yet explored why he felt hurt.
I don’t think people should “forgive” or dismiss the person who made the wrong assumption as having “good intentions.” Both can deny us of the opportunity of exploring why we felt hurt or angry in the first place, which can teach us more about ourselves than holding onto the anger can.
Allow our assumptions to change
Ask Yourself: Do your feelings and memories about past negative events change with time?
For years, I nursed the resentment. The story served as an underdog narrative, demonstrating how I was able to prove people wrong by getting a job later on at that company.
Knowing what I know now, I can hypothesize different reasons why she asked about my education. Maybe she was trying to connect me to a special program for job seekers without college degrees? Or maybe she learned not to assume everyone has a college degree? I’ll never know because I never asked why.
I’ve heard many examples from others whose understanding of a past, aggravating event has changed over time.
“Ahmed,” a refugee from Ethiopia shared, “When I came to the US as a child, I saw images in the media that portrayed Black people in a bad light. This included negative messages about Africa, which gave me feelings of shame. I felt so bad about myself that I reacted by acting out. It was only when I went to a youth development program where they taught us the real history of the world, Africa, and the U.S. that things began to change. I met a mentor who showed me how everyone comes from Africa. This is when I began to feel a sense of pride and started becoming a proud African man.”
How we view ourselves changes over time. Examining our assumptions can accelerate our self-awareness, though it will never be immediate. Even if we ask the questions, we might not be able to answer. Part of learning is living with the hurt for a while, sometimes years and decades.
How we see others will change
Ask Yourself: When you change how you think about yourself, does it change how you think about others?
Assumptions don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist to explain our world order. To react differently to someone’s wrong assumption about us might require us to change other assumptions that we’re not even aware of yet because we hold them to be true.
I shared the story about Margot questioning me about having a college degree with a small group of strangers as a way to open up conversations about assumptions. Someone asked me, “Why were you initially offended?” I didn’t have a good answer. Only days later did I realize it was because I think of myself as someone who looks college-educated, in contrast to those who are not college-educated.
I have friends who didn’t go to college or didn’t finish their college degrees. They don’t “look” any different from those who have their degrees. I know that. My indignation stemmed from a deep rooted sense of superiority for having a college degree compared to those who don’t. I recognized my pride was wounded.
Here’s another example. “Kim” recounted her experience as a senior executive at a large company where people often assumed she was the administrative assistant. At first, Kim was annoyed. At that time, she didn’t have an assistant because she didn’t need one. Later on, only after her workload required her to hire help did Kim recognize how smart administrative assistants must be. Kim realized her original annoyance over being called an administrative assistant actually stemmed from feeling superior to that role. She couldn’t understand how people would think she was one.
I now can recognize that assumptions made about me happen while I'm making assumptions about others. We might not ask questions because we assume we’ll know what the answer is. After we feel hurt, anger, or frustration, we should start reflecting on what is behind the stories we are telling ourselves.
Ask Yourself: Can you rethink a past, negative event and interpret it differently now?
If Margot or someone else were to ask me today if I have a college degree, I’d respond with a question, “Yes, I have a Ph.D. Why do you ask?”
When we shift how we see ourselves, it can change how we see others. Our assumptions can change, and so can what we believe to be true.