Mind The Gap
An Exploration Into Assumptions And Self-perception
I pulled into the WalMart parking lot and spotted the white Chevy Trailblazer I was looking for. The driver smiled and nodded to communicate that he made me out as well.
This was the first time I was meeting this gentleman, an acquaintance of a friend, to drop some things off for a third party. We pulled into adjacent parking spaces, and he approached my car with a sprightly gait. As if he had breaking news, he leaned towards my half-open window with a beaming toothy smile exclaiming, “Hi! I know your brother. I know your brother.”
I found this unlikely as neither brother of mine was involved in the link that connected us, but I paid it no mind, and asked him if he wanted to reverse his car so we could easily transfer the boxes from trunk to trunk. As if he insisted on my acknowledging him, he enthusiastically repeated, “I know your brother, eh?” I figured he had mistaken my friend for whom I was doing this favor, for my brother, but since he so obviously craved my reaction, I let him know, “That’s not my brother, by the way.”
Anyway, a simple mistake. No big deal, I thought. We have the same shade of brown skin, so it would be an easy error to make.
But then he doubled down.
“Oh, that’s not your brother? Cousin?”
“Nope,” I replied. “Not related.”
“Oh. You from Sri Lanka too?”
I think you could call this tripling down.
Firstly, my friend is not Sri Lankan; his parents were born in Malaysia.
“I’m from Trinidad,” I responded with no desire to correct him about my friend’s nationality. I was spending enough effort listlessly adjusting to his energy.
He continued, “Oh. Wow! Other side of the world, eh? Well, I’m from Africa.”
I went to the back of my car to give him the boxes, and right on cue, he remarked, “So you’re a Trini man. Which part you from? Princes Town?”
This time, I had to laugh. Princes Town is a small town in south Trinidad with a population of about 10,000 people (about 0.5% of the country’s population). In between my chuckles of laughter, my curiosity forced me to prompt him, “How do you know about Princes Town?”
Without pause, he retorted, “My sister married a Trini man. I know about a few places. Princes Town, San Fernando Island…”
*facepalm* San Fernando is not an island. The city of San Fernando is the major business hub of south Trinidad.
This time, I felt compelled to correct him, after which, both the enthusiasm and volume of his voice slightly diminished.
“I know some things about it…,” he trailed off.
To his credit, he didn’t lose his smile or fervor. In a span of about three minutes, he fearlessly fired off six incorrect assumptions. There’s something to say about that consistency and determination to make conversation and connect with a person. After all, he was only looking to relate to me. If nothing else, he entrenched himself as an unforgettable character in my life.
Truthfully, there is no reason I should catalog such a person in my mental space, but he inspired a lot of reflection. I thought a lot about assumptions and how they can get us in trouble, or at the very least, embarrass us. Sometimes inconspicuous characters such as these are introduced in the novel of our lives to teach us lessons; sometimes they knowingly or unknowingly exhibit traits we can aspire to, and other times…the opposite.
The first lesson was one we’ve heard before:
When you assume, you make an ass of u and me.
The solution? Simple.
In my self-study, I noticed I sometimes feel compelled to report something because I think I have the inside scoop or exclusive story, and by sharing it, I become regarded as an insider. If the cost can be my credibility and reliability, the gossip is not worth it.
The second lesson was about self-awareness. This gentleman (ironically, this is an assumption) gave me the impression that he didn’t understand how he was coming off to me. I don’t think he would recall our interaction in the same way, noticing and documenting six incorrect assumptions. I recently learned about a common mental pattern called the Dunning-Kruger Effect which offers an explanation for this.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which ‘relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is.’
The funny thing about the term ‘relatively unskilled persons’ is that no one reads those words and thinks, “Yup, that’s me.” People hear that term and start thinking of the people in their lives (especially co-workers) who they think are less skilled than themselves.
Well the truth is we are all relatively unskilled — it just depends on which skill set we are talking about. Cooking? Sudoku? Parenting? Painting? Public Speaking? Snowboarding? If anyone thinks they are superiorly skilled in all of those things, the skill they lack is probably honesty with themselves.
Learning about this condition spurred an investigative thought pattern in me and begged the question: In terms of our own quirks, oddities, or shortcomings, how much are we aware of? How vast is the gap between how we think we present ourselves and how others interpret us? A major exercise in self-improvement is acknowledging and reconciling said gap.
The publishers of the Dunning-Kruger effect concluded that when people regard themselves as highly skilled in a certain area, they are sometimes correct, and sometimes gravely mistaken, so it is not my place to comment further. That being said, I hope this awareness stirs some inquiry and analysis on your path to self-improvement. Short of that, do us all a favor and make less assumptions.
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