How to Avoid Common Misunderstandings

 

We’ve all used the phrase “I assumed.It often expresses the disappointment of an expectation.I assumed” X, but Y occurred instead.

This implies that one person didn’t specify his meaning, or the other misunderstood or wasn’t paying attention. One or both believed an understanding had been created. Something obvious was not grasped, explicit or implied.

Years ago, I used the expression with a teenage patient, a quick-witted, sometimes rude young fellow. He responded, “When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME.

Impertinent, but correct.

On another occasion, I taught a neighbor’s boy how to drive. He’d taken the relevant driver’s education classes and read the required material. The teen recognized Illinois permitted a right turn after a complete stop at a red light or stop sign.

Then one could turn, so he believed.

The young fellow didn’t glance left down the street to make sure he wouldn’t collide with the cross traffic. He “assumed” the stop alone allowed him to go.

Fortunately, no accident occurred. I took a deep breath, restrained myself from removing his head from his shoulders, gulped, and explained the danger.

Should we assume less than we do?

Think of words. Do people agree on the meaning of phrases like ...

  • I promise?
  • I’ll see you later?
  • I will do it soon?

What is a promise? When are broken promises excusable?

What do you mean by later?

When? Today, tomorrow, in a few days?

Most of us expect or hope for reciprocity in relationships. If we do regular favors for another, display generosity of time and attention, pay for food and drink, we anticipate occasional effort to provide consideration in return.

Not everyone gets this. Indeed, the nonreciprocal individual might be shocked if he were accused of selfishness.

Consider routine language combinations such as “next Tuesday.Does it mean the Tuesday of this week or next?

When you ask a person to telephone you tonight, what constitutes tonight? Or, perhaps, “Call me after dinner.Does everyone agree on when nighttime begins and when it’s too late?

We tend to believe ourselves reasonable and logical. As for the next bloke, we aren’t sure. Yet we “assume” the gentleman thinks as we do in everyday conversation: he conforms to our comprehension of words and “normal” conduct.

Since many find it uncomfortable to ask “when exactly” a task will be performed, another potential complication exists. When will the package delivery occur, when will the contract be sent, etc.?

Do your friends or acquaintances reason as you do? Would their understanding, the organization of logic and thought match your own? Do you recognize their blindspots? Do you know all of your own? How can you be certain?

When you reflect on your own knowledge and values, do you find yourself in sync with the people you socialize with? If you are perfectly aligned, you might reach a point of boredom in their company.

No matter how hard you try, how hard your friend tries, misunderstandings occur, epic or tiny. Fortunately, most are minor.

We can’t see ourselves from the outside nor get into another’s head. Each of us creates a universe through our eyes alone, not a reality. Though our realities overlap, no couple envisions the world identically. In your self-created cosmos, your unique conception of life informs every picture. No wonder the rhino/artist in the single-cell comic (above) paints everything the way he does.

The other’s “universe” is fun getting to know. Discovering another world makes life entertaining but complicated. We must strike a liveable balance between trying to interact with machine-like certainty and accepting everyone’s limits, including our own.

Nonetheless, I offer you some brief guidance to reduce your chance of misunderstandings and presumptions going wrong.

  • Consider how often mix-ups occur in your life. Are they repetitive? In what way? What might you do to cut down the number?
  • Make a list of past disagreements and how much assumptions played a part. Focus on the ones most common to you.
  • Recognize the types of persons with whom you tend to encounter troublesome issues. Are they bosses, teachers, lovers, or particular friends? Analyze the significant categories and ask yourself why this one and not another.
  • People of different generations and cultural or ethnic backgrounds follow the norms of their cohorts. For example, there are generational differences in the use of language. “I’m up for that” once was the equivalent of “I’m down for that.” For some, it still is.
  • One method of minimizing errant assumptions is to ask more questions.
  • Perhaps some of the acquaintances you thought you knew well have changed. Or maybe you have.
  • Find a place of comfort between constructing careless agreements and meticulous conversation, similar to a lawyer drafting a contract. Accept the small mishaps of life as the condition of human existence.
  • Be sure to allow some room for both you and others to change. As the 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes said when asked why his current ideas were inconsistent with past statements, he replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

If a friend moves from compulsive promptness to something more laid back, he probably doesn’t text you the news. 

Ah, the complexity of relationships! Make the best of them. You can make human contact smoother and perhaps laugh at some of the bumps along the way.

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The last image comes from a 1901 issue of Puck magazine. It was drawn by Samuel D. Erhart. The source is Wikimedia Commons.