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SCOT BELLAVIA: You Know What Happens When You Assume?

Some things in life shape our interpretation of it. There are fixed realities we can’t get around. We can have a worldview, a religious creed, or a guiding motto, but the facts of life form these. Making assumptions about others is a fact of life.

A former co-worker of mine thought it was possible to overcome this instinct. She claimed she never judged people, and her impression of them only came once they were in relationship.

But her claim was dubious to me for two reasons. When I asked her how she developed this skill, she couldn’t give me a straight answer. Second, I remembered she had told me she wasn’t sure how well I would fit in when she heard that a guy in his mid-20s would be joining a company where all the patrons and most of the employees were over 50. She said this to assure me she had since been proven otherwise, but it revealed that she had formed an opinion before befriending me…even before seeing my face!

On a more general level, choosing a spouse is the most important decision anyone can make; the first impression here carries a lot of weight. This choice ultimately starts with shallow characteristics like attractiveness and conduct on the first date. This is not to say we should give everybody a chance to date us; rather, our friendships, and especially romantic interests, are often based on what we see before getting to know a person.

Similarly, realtors recommend cosmetic enhancements, like a newly painted front door or an updated kitchen, to increase the chances of a house being sold. Chipped paint doesn’t necessarily equate to shoddy work in the structure or foundation, but if a house lacks curb appeal, a potential buyer will search elsewhere.

In the United States last summer, there was a lot of talk about racial profiling by police and unconscious bias among civilians. As a result of those conversations, white people were encouraged to consider their latent prejudices – ways in which they mistreated minority races without realizing it. Even if you think disproportionate onus was placed on white people, assumptions can be rewired.

They should be when our assumptions become assertions that lead us to believe the worst about someone.

We don’t know the first thing about a stranger. What’s on their mind, where they just came from, their favorite hobbies, why they’re wearing what they’re wearing, and even their exact ethnicity are all completely unknown.

While it can be dangerous to assume the best about a stranger, it’s unfair to assume the worst. Each of us should develop habits that remind us that some of our conclusions about a stranger are only assumptions that should be dismissed.

Still, we can do little to control the first impression people make on us. Whether with a passer-by, a new acquaintance, a future boss, or a cashier, these interactions have no do-overs.

First impressions matter. Certain clothes are more appropriate for certain occasions. Our employers expect a certain demeanor that may differ from the one we have at home. It would be unhealthy to live in a constant state of anxiety over what people think of us, but we should be cognizant of how we look and carry ourselves.

Making assumptions about others is a fact of life, but it does not have to lead to prejudice or disregard towards a stranger. It is our responsibility to make a first impression that most accurately reflects who we truly are and how we want to be viewed by others. It is within our ability not to allow our assumptions to be assertions.

Scot Bellavia


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