Monday, March 3, 2014

To Assume Or Not To Assume?

It's old news that people say offensive, annoying, and insensitive things to one another when they're trying to ask simple questions.

People of color get asked "where are you from? No, really, where are you from?" as if "Canada" can't be the real answer. Gays and lesbians get quizzed about dates and hot prospects of the incorrect sex. Women get grilled over when they're going to have children. I'm sure you can multiply the examples.

It's sometimes suggested that the underlying problem that explains this kind of oafish behavior is that people make assumptions about one another -- which they ought not do.

I get the appeal of this idea, and certainly it's partly right, but I don't think it can be quite the whole story. Because I think failing to make assumptions can be just as offensive as making assumptions.

Imagine if you were introduced to someone of a different race or ethnicity or background or sexual orientation from yourself and you started asking questions like "Are you a person? Do you breathe air? Do you have a mother and father?"

These questions would be the height of offensiveness, not because they make assumptions, but because they fail to acknowledge what ought to be obviously correct assumptions to make.

These examples are extreme, but I think the same applies to real and ordinary questions. Since I'm a prof I often talk to students I don't know. Whenever we turn away from the scholarly and toward the personal, I try to ask them open-ended questions to learn about their life and point of view, to let them guide the discussion. But in doing so I'm often struck that even asking a good open-ended question often requires some kind of assumptions -- and hopefully understanding -- of their likely situation.

For example, if a student is considering majoring in philosophy and wants to talk, they're often not even sure what questions to ask, so I find myself asking questions to draw them out. I generally assume that they'll want to know about job prospects, that their parents will have some opinion about the matter, etc etc.

It seems to me it would be more offensive and annoying to start the conversation back one level with questions like "will you be planning to work for a living as you grow up?" "Are you in touch with your parents, do you talk to them?" I mean, the answers to these questions might be "no," and yet, if I were talking with a student different from me it seems to me those questions would open, not close, conversational distance.

If you're not going assume, you have to ask. But questions make their own assumptions -- about what's common knowledge and what isn't, about what the asker thinks significant and worth discussing and so on.

An acquaintance of mine recently emailed and happened to mention he was writing from a middle-eastern country known for a turbulent history. Since he brought it up, it seemed to me it would be weird to not mention it in my response, weird to assume somehow that violence or threat of it were affecting his visit, and perhaps weird not to assume that violence or the threat of it were affecting his visit. Even a question would, it seemed to me, goes one way or the other. I'd recently learned about some aspects of this place not associated with turbulence and politics, I asked about those. Probably best, but who knows? In circumstances like that, it seems to me you could be stereotyping if you ask about violence and annoyingly ignorant if you didn't -- depending on details, context, and so on.

I don't think there is any blanket strategy for avoiding the problems of offensive and annoying questions, by which I mean -- the only way to avoid them is to know what they are and know how to avoid them. Listen to other people, take it seriously when they talk or write about what's on their mind, use it to inform your next conversation, and go from there.

It's not about avoiding making assumptions, but rather about knowing which assumptions are apt and sensitive to make -- and this seems to require actually knowing something about the world and the other people in it.

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