Assume Nothing—The Benefits of a Blank Slate
All of us see and use patterns.
It’s how we get through life. If we didn’t assume people would behave a certain way or that the world would follow physical laws or that our cars would work the same way, we would never get through the day. We would spend all our time experimenting—figuring out how things worked and how they responded to our interaction.
On the other hand, our assumptions about how things work can impede our ability to discover new things. Our need to see patterns can lead to a habit of seeing them where they may not exist. Patterns can be very helpful, but we should avoid assuming a pattern or some other condition if the potential for learning something new or different exists. Things aren’t always as they seem.
The dangers of seeing patterns
When we make assumptions based on our notions of how people are or how the world works, it can be detrimental to those we interact with and to making progress in situations in which we have to work through differences. A prominent example of this entails racial or ethnic stereotypes and profiling. Stereotypes are among the most significant drivers of racism and among the biggest barriers to making progress on racism. This is certainly reason enough to be cautious about the patterns we see and the assumptions we make. Many of us may think this goes without saying—that we don’t stereotype—but all of us make assumptions about the patterns we see and all of us have to be vigilant against any of those assumptions leading to stereotypes or profiling.
Many of us also make assumptions about patterns we see in others’ political views or worldviews. People’s affiliations, such as their political parties, can lead us to make sweeping generalizations about them. Some of these may be valid. A political party has a platform, and if someone belongs to that political party, it’s reasonable to assume that they concur with the perspectives laid out in that platform. But there are always nuances. In today’s political climate, it’s critical to explore those nuances and not to be tempted to assume the worst. If we keep everyone of a certain persuasion in an ideological box with all the associated labels attached, we will never make progress in coming to terms with those who disagree with us. This is not meant to suggest that we shouldn’t hold firm to our values and our vision for where society should be heading, but we should still be open-minded regarding who people are and the contexts of their opinions (see Tidal Talking).
Using a blank slate
There will always be patterns upon which we can make assumptions, and, in many cases, these can be helpful. But it can be extremely interesting and insightful to ignore these patterns when interacting with certain people—to begin with a blank slate. This will not only help us to correct any incorrect assumptions, it can also help us to see new patterns—patterns that we might have not seen before.
How do you go about using a blank slate? You can’t unlearn what you know about somebody.
In this context, using a blank slate really means putting your assumptions aside—interacting with the person as if you don’t know anything about them. It means putting aside any labels, memories of difficult interactions, or points on which you disagree, and interacting with them with a completely open mind. In doing this, you might see some context about the person that you’ve never acknowledged before, for instance, their history and how they developed their mannerisms or worldview. You might notice some insecurity that might lead them to behave in a certain way. By starting fresh with a person, it’s possible to recreate your relationship with them and possibly avoid some of the pitfalls that developed from your previous interactions.
You can and should do this with people you are meeting for the first time, but it is also possible to do it with people you have a history with.
We know nothing
We may feel we know certain other people very well, but it is important to remember that what we “know” about people is based on a tiny piece of who they are. Each of us has layers upon layers in our identity that have built upover years of experiences, interactions, and knowledge.
When we meet new people, we see their clothes, the way they talk, their race, their gender. We are tempted to make certain assumptions. In these circumstances, it is important to stop and realize that we actually know nothing about them. Any assumptions we make will limit our interactions and may get in the way of a meaningful exploration of who each of us is, without limitation.
Keeping an open mind and being watchful regarding our assumptions can help us see new things where we didn’t even know they existed.
Start with a blank slate.