During college, I took a course on intercultural competency. The main point of the course was when we first encounter a new culture, we should recognize our own incompetency. The most important skill to master?
Don’t make assumptions.
Incidentally, a mortifying misunderstanding in the class drove this home most powerfully.
Our professor was a long-time missionary with wisdom, wit, and immense patience with our snarky 8am class. On this particular day, he began the lesson referencing a lecture by a visiting scholar the night before.
He didn’t want to talk about the scholar’s lecture, though. Instead, his focus was on something that appalled him.
An elderly woman had meandered into the lecture late, only to find all the seats taken. Our professor observed one of his students noticed the woman. To his dismay, the student kept her teenage rump in her seat. His remarks about the student’s lack of awareness were to be the case study on cultural sensitivity that day.
I simultaneously wanted to stand up to shout…and to run out of the room and cry.
I was that student. And his assumptions were plain wrong.
When the frail-looking old woman walked in, I noticed her. I tried to make eye contact to communicate to her my desire to give up the seat. She didn’t look my way. She wasn’t within reach. Most of the lecture, I was more focused on her than the scholar because I was concerned.
If I were an elderly woman who wandered into something late, I would be embarrassed by the attention of a stranger. Especially if the stranger climbed out of the middle of a row to swap places. So, based on my assumptions about how she might feel, I spent the lecture feeling guilty and watching, waiting for any opportunity to more subtly accommodate the older woman.
The Trouble with Assumptions
My professor’s assumptions about me were incorrect.
My assumptions about the woman were quite likely incorrect.
I wish I could say this taught me not to make assumptions entirely. Instead, I spent the rest of the semester, and several after, uncomfortable around the professor and convinced he didn’t like me. The truth is, other classmates of mine were at the missionary’s lecture. The professor might not have been talking about me that day!
Simple Steps to Avoiding Assumptions
As I look at this example of assumption-issues and many others, a few lessons stand out to me.
#1: Recognize People Aren’t All The Same
“In one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function.” –Romans 12:4
In a recent post, my friend Lois wrote about one of the best parenting lessons she learned: her children are not her. When she makes decisions, she tries not to approach everything assuming her kids’ personalities and experiences are going to be the same as her own.
#2: Make Allowances for One Another
“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.” –Colossians 3:13
As one of my favorite characters, Anne of Green Gables, sometimes points out, we can get along with most anyone if we’re willing to make allowances for each other. Give others the benefit of the doubt. When you’re feeling judgy of someone else, remind yourself you are guilty of the same sort of sin or having character flaws of your own. Let Jesus be the One who works those out.
Instead of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to judge what you have done differently, tie their laces with the golden rule. Give them the benefit of the doubt.Instead of putting yourself in someone else's shoes to judge what you have done differently, tie their laces with the golden rule. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Click To Tweet
#3: Ask Again, Listen Patiently
“Take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” –James 1:19
Somewhere on social media, I saw a wonderful meme highlighting the fact that Jesus asked questions He knew the answer to, so there’s a purpose in us asking questions we think we know the answer to. There’s always more to learn, and we gain understanding and compassion when we clarify and listen patiently.
What would you add to these quick tips for avoiding assumptions? Have you had any assumption mishaps?
Prayer tip: if you struggle with making assumptions about and judging someone in particular, purposefully pray for them. It’s hard to tear someone apart when you’re holding them up to Jesus.
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