Posted by: Jason | July 1, 2012

Don’t Assume.

If you look up the word “assume” in the dictionary, you get the following definition: “to take for granted or without proof”. What that means is that when you assume something, you believe it to be true, even though you don’t have any proof that it is, in fact, true. It’s not always a bad thing. For example, I always assume that my car is going to start in the morning. It always does, so, I have no reason to think that it won’t. However, that is an assumption. I have no proof that my car will start before I actually turn the key.

However, when we’re talking about talking to people from other cultures, assuming things can lead to all sorts of problems. There’s an old proverb that says, “Never assume. If you assume, you make an ass of u and me”. Look at how assume is spelled and I think you’ll get the joke. In other words, when we assume something is true, it quite often isn’t, and this leads to all sorts of misunderstandings. Sometimes they’re funny, but sometimes they can cause all sorts of problems.

For example, when I first came to Japan, everything was new and interesting. It was all so different for me. Even things that people in Japan take for granted were very different for me. So, I might see something sitting on a table and say, “Oh, that’s very pretty” and people would then try to give it to me. I didn’t want it. I just thought it was pretty and I thought that complimenting the things in someone’s house would make me a better guest. Which, in Canada anyway, it does. I very quickly learned not to say anything, even if I really did think something was nice, because I didn’t want anyone to think that they should turn it into a gift for me.

Strangely enough, whenever I complimented someone’s car, they never tried to give it to me. I guess there are limits.

But, there are all sorts of things like this. For example, it is very, very common for North Americans to question everything. When we ask questions, it shows that we are interested and want to learn more about something. It doesn’t mean that we want someone to do anything whatever it is we’re asking questions about. We just want more information. This can get a bit tricky in Japan, where asking questions is often an indirect way of getting someone to do something. If I ask someone about how they do something, they might think that I want them to do that for me. I really don’t. I’m just asking a question.

So, be aware. Both people have to be aware. It’s both people’s responsibility to make sure that misunderstandings don’t happen. Just remember that the other person you are talking to does not share your cultural ideas and might have no idea why you are doing something or reacting in a certain way. Take the time to learn about the other person’s culture before you start making assumptions.

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