The other day I was waiting for a stranger. We had corresponded and arranged to meet, but I had no idea what the woman I was meeting looked like. We were meeting to discuss some business in a café.
I was a bit early and so I got myself a cup of tea. There were many other women in the café, and just to be on the safe side I asked them all, one by one, if they were the lady I was meeting. They were not.
A little embarrassed I found myself a seat and sat down. I started thinking about what I knew about this woman. She was a volunteer with the local branch of the Women’s Institute. And what did I assume?
Well, I realised I assumed she was business-like yet friendly and that she would have an efficient air about her, because her emails had given me that impression. And I assumed she was past fifty, because she was representing the Women’s Institute.
Yet I had asked the seventeen year old in the corner if she was here to meet me. Why? Well, I realised I did not want to jump to conclusions. Just because many women who are involved with the Women’s Institute are over fifty doesn’t mean everyone is. And as embarrassed as I was now, it would have been far worse if I had asked everyone but the seventeen year old, and for it to have turned out to be her.
We make distinctions in order to tell the difference between people. This is a human ability designed to help us make sense of our world, like that one’s a stranger and that one’s a friend. Or I’ve been in this place before, but that place over there is unknown to me.
But what when this ability runs wild it is the opposite of helpful. This is what happens when we take a trait and imbue it with a meaning that it doesn’t really have, and that isn’t really connected. This is what happens when we discriminate against people. This is where racism comes from, and that’s just nasty.
We have to be able to differentiate between what we know and what we assume. When we do this we sometimes realise that stuff we thought we knew, actually were assumptions. When assumptions take over we think we know a lot about something or someone, but really we don’t know anything. How embarrassing is that.
The lady from the Woman’s Institute arrived on time and found me straight away. It turns out she recognised me from my email photo that I had forgotten was attached to my account. She met my expectations too, but some of that was just coincidental. So in the end I’m glad I asked the seventeen year old, because I’d rather check than discriminate. It is so much better to ask than to assume.