We get the image by filling in the blank spaces between the dots with our imagination.
Yesterday, I met Andrew. I’m terrible with names, so I adopted an association system a few years ago to help me remembering all the names of people I get to know. If it was already hard in my country, go ahead and find some association for Sam, Mit, Tara and Jessy as a Portuguese speaker. Anyway, this one was quite easy, once I could associate it with the name of one of my best friends from when I was younger.
But what I really wanted to write about is how Andrew made me think about a simple thing in our daily lives: assumptions. These automatic and inescapable reactions of our human brains. We take everything we have ever learned, watched and received during our lives to quickly help us fill in the blank spaces of all new realities that we find in front of us every second. To meet a new Muay Thai colleague, for example.
If the life of any foreigner is made up of uncertainties, at least you can be sure about one thing: after 2 or 3 words you say to anyone, the question will be “where are you from?”. Sometimes it happens even after a simple “hi”. And my experience with Andrew followed the pattern pretty well. Until the point I said “Brazil”. The usual reaction is a “what the hell are you doing so far from home?” expression, followed by something like “cool”, “great” or “awesome”. I will never know if people really like my country or they simply don’t know what to say in this situation. Sometimes, I get comments filled with assumptions, like “but you don’t look like a Brazilian” or “I thought you were German”, but I don’t want to give you spoilers about this text.
Right after I gave Andrew my answer, he asked me “so do you speak Portuguese?”. I now realize how rude I might have been with my automatic laugh and “of course” response. But, if he got offended (and he had the right to, I’d say) with my attitude, he didn’t show it, because he cheerfully explained why he asked me that.
He once met a Mexican guy, that had just finished his University degree in Mexico. But, between being born and becoming a bachelor, he lived his whole life in the US. And that’s how this guy is Mexican and went to University in Mexico without knowing a word in Spanish. From that day on, he’s been trying to not have assumptions about people, he said.
And with this 5 minute chat with Andrew, I remembered the origin of a huge part of all the prejudice in the world. We don’t want to spend the time or energy asking people about their lives, we are too lazy to get more details. So we make fast assumptions to fill in what we don’t know and move on. Sometimes, it’s a long term relationship, and we’ll have time to figure out later if our assumptions were right or wrong. Most of the time, this is not the case. So we simply live the rest of our lives happy with our comfortable assumptions, swimming gladly in our sea of ignorance.
Naturally, we make assumptions based only on what we know. Have you ever thought about how dangerous it is to limit everyone to our individual knowledge? The minute I said I was Brazilian, Andrew could have assumed that I spoke Portuguese, knew how to dance samba, could cook beans and liked soccer. In this case, he would be right only about the first thing. And that’s why he asks people things. Even the apparently obvious things.
While the assumption that a Brazilian speaks Portuguese seems harmless, what about “she’s fat, so she’s unhappy”? Or “she’s skinny, so she doesn’t have fun or a social life”? He’s poor, so… He’s rich, so… He’s gay, so… He’s heterosexual, so…
It’s a neverending Descartes effect, except for the “I think” part.
It’s sad that, with all the diversity and beauty we have in the world, we prefer to stuff people in our own boxes of certitude.
We all love good surprises, but only if it‘s breakfast in bed. Amazing details about random people’s lives don’t count.
One week ago, I met Mit (the guy who, in my head, went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology so I can remember his name), also at Muay Thai class. He’s from Thailand. My automatic comment was “so you’re going to kick my ass in class?”, and he answered “nope, I’ve only been doing Muay Thai for a month”.