When was the last time you made an assumption about another person, whether it be from their behavior or appearance, without knowing a thing about them? Yesterday? Today? A few minutes ago? Maybe it was the guy in the Hummer tailgating you that you assumed was a jerk. Perhaps the woman in line at the grocery store who snapped at the checker because she was in a hurry seemed mean and selfish.
These are assumptions that many people might agree with. But what if you learned more about these people? What if you dropped any kind of judgment about them and took a moment to recognize that no matter what seems to be going on with another person, you simply don’t know the whole story.
To quote Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
There are endless ways we filter other people through our own murky glasses.
Years ago, a friend of mine was taking the train from his house into the city and on the train was a father with his two loud, misbehaving sons. As the boys ran wild throughout the train, it was clear to my friend that these kids were bothering not just him but everyone, so he sternly asked the father to control his children. “I’m so sorry,” the man said. “They lost their mother last night and they’re just not themselves.”
Needless to say, my friend was stopped in his tracks and realized that he had made quite an assumption about this man and his sons, without giving one thought to what might be going on in their lives to make them behave this way. He immediately apologized to the man and from that point on, made a promise to himself to never make assumptions about what other people are going through.
How difficult can it be, though, to make that promise of not assuming things about other people, especially when they push your buttons? I had a boss once who was on the surface, one of the most manipulative, cold-hearted people I’d ever come across. It seemed he relished in embarrassing and confusing people with his daily landslide of orders. One evening at a company gathering, I happened to strike up a conversation with him and somehow the subject of his father came up. He shared with me that his father always told him he’d never amount to anything so to prove him wrong, he set out to make as much money as he could. “It wasn’t until I made my second million that my father even acknowledged that I existed,” he said.
Talk about blowing apart my assumptions. Knowing this heartbreaking piece of information about my boss and understanding how this impacted his harsh behavior in life, I was able to let go of my resentments toward him and see him for who he was – a wounded man, trying to feel of some value.
There are endless ways we filter other people through our own murky glasses, whether it’s assuming they’re good or bad or right or wrong. But until we know their whole story and we’ve taken a moment to think what it might be like to “climb into their skin,” we’ll miss out on discovering the empathy we have within ourselves, continuing to create distance instead of connection.
Amy Shouse is a Los Angeles native who lives and writes in Santa Monica.