Friday, August 23, 2013

Snap assumptions

“Why do most Americans drink their coffee black?” My Kiwi co-worker, who’d noticed that I always put milk and two sugars in my coffee, was curious. I probably stared for a moment or two, then said, “As far as I know, they don’t.” She continued, “Then why do they always show them pouring black cups of coffee on American TV shows?” And this was how I first became aware of how people overseas make assumptions about Americans and the USA based on what they see on TV.

I thought for a moment, thinking of a way to explain why American TV shows didn’t have people prepare coffee the way I drank it, and then I said that they do that on TV shows to save time and reduce visual clutter: Having a character grab a pot of coffee and pour a cup takes less time and is less visually distracting than if they went through a ritual of adding sugar and milk. The fact is, however, that I had no idea whether I was right or not—it just popped into my head as a logical explanation based on my assumptions about how Americans prepared their coffee. The reality is, I was making assumptions about all Americans based on my own observations just as my co-worker had been.

We all do this, and accepting our observations or assumptions as fact is probably a universal human thing: We evolved to be able to make quick assessments of others—friend or foe? Ally or enemy?—in order to be able to survive. We kept that primitive behaviour even as civilisation advanced, and it has led not only to wars at the extreme end, but also common prejudice and bigotry (and everything in between).

It’s not easy to avoid making what I’d call Snap Assumptions about society around us or about foreign societies. We assume that because we do a certain thing, all others must, too. For example, I always put the open end of pillowcases facing outward, toward the sides of a bed, because that’s what my mother taught me to do. I assumed all people did that. Then I learned other people do it differently. I gently and neatly scrape margarine onto my knife. Then I learned that others dig and gouge it out.

It obviously doesn’t matter which way pillows face or how margarine is removed from the tub, but what about when we make assumptions that DO matter? For example, we constantly hear people declaring that gay couples can’t have a real marriage because they’re not of opposite genders, so, therefore, they can’t possibly love each other, not really. That’s as silly and stupid as assuming beds must be made, or margarine removed, a certain way because it’s the way we do it. The fact and reality here is simple: We cannot assume that we know or understand other people, what they think, what they feel or what’s in their hearts, based solely on ourselves or what we see on TV.

So, when people make assumptions about gay couples’ relationships, or about transgender people, or about young people, or about people of a different race or religion, all such assumptions are almost always as worthless as ones about how a bed should be made, or that all Americans drink their coffee black. Instead, maybe we should find out from them what their reality is.

Understanding—real understanding—is hard work. We have to put aside our silly assumptions and look for the truth our assumptions are obscuring. I can’t help thinking this world would be a better and safer place if we stopped making snap assumptions.

Today, I challenged my own assumptions, and those of my former co-worker: According to the National Coffee Association’s 2013 National Coffee Drinking Trends survey, 83% of Americans drink coffee (up 5%), and 63% drink it daily. Other statistics show that only 35% of Americans drink their coffee black, and 65% drink it with cream (milk) and/or sugar.


rogerogreen said...

as someone who doesn't drink coffee at all, still I was surprised by your assumption about coffee. Maybe because I DON'T drink it, I watched a LOT of coffee drinkers' behavior. Black coffee, mostly to wake up or after drinking too much booze, seems to be normative to me.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

The funny thing is, My mother frank black coffee and my dad drank coffee with only sugar. So, it's not like I was modelling their behaviour! On the other hand, when I was newly independent, I'd go to all-night restaurants and my friends all ordered coffee as I drink it—milk and sugar. This was far more influential for me—I suppose there's a blog post in that.

New York Erratic said...

I didn't realize most people liked cream and sugar, but when I think about it every person I regularly have coffee with takes cream and sugar.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Yep, me too—though a couple don't use sugar.