More years ago than I care to remember, I was a young secretary working in an office directly outside the bank of elevators of our aging building. Sound from the foyer around the elevators seemed to funnel directly into our office; consequently, I was often privy to conversations that weren’t meant for my ears.
During the first weeks that I worked there, several of the conversations I overheard among the younger female staff centered around the behavior of another young woman in a nearby office. All of the comments were critical. The remark I heard most often was, “She is so stuck up!” Sometimes I heard elaborations on the theme, such as, “She never talks to anyone”, or, “She thinks she’s too good for us.”
After a few weeks, having gotten to know everyone involved, I ventured to speak up the next time these same old, tired comments were reiterated. “Actually, I don’t think she’s stuck up or a snob,” I remarked gently. “I think she’s just really shy.”
The looks I received in return for this remark told me that, without doubt, my days as a welcome member of this group of women were distinctly numbered. Nevertheless, I pressed on; I’ve never been very bright about that whole “holding your tongue for social reasons” sort of thing. Braving the laser-like eyes boring into me, I explained, “Well, you see, I’ve been shy for most of my life, and I think I see that in her. She has trouble meeting your eye. Her shoulders hunch up when you speak to her. I don’t think means to come across as a snob. I think she’s just really shy.”
I received a volley of protests from each woman present, pressing her point that the person I was defending was a snobbish prig rather than an introvert. I decided to back down; there was obviously nothing to be gained in continuing my unwelcome observations. The group had made up its collective mind, and nothing I said was going to change that.
True to my supposition, though, I was also not often asked to lunch with that group again. My remarks had made them uncomfortable. I hadn’t intended to be pointing the finger at them, but I’d nevertheless opened up a nasty can of worms in the possibility that they might be behaving in a judgmental manner – or, even worse, just plain wrong. My viewpoint was distinctly unwelcome.
Those of us who have the bad taste to defend the underdog, or to profess a different belief than the commonly-held thought of the day, I’ve learned, tend to become persona non grata.
I’ve never forgotten that lesson, nor the others that I learned from that long ago incident, the first and most important being that our assumptions about a person—any person–do not constitute reality. I learned that we must be willing to relinquish those assumptions if we are going to truly come to know another person. Most important of all, though, was that I came to realize that we all continually operate on the assumptions we’ve made about the people we’ve just met, or even those whom we’ve known for years. We make snap judgments about behaviors and situations. We categorize groups of individuals. We make assumptions about our friends, family members, even our pets. Sometimes we call it instinct, such as when we decide, wisely, that there is something not quite right about that person who just approached us at the mall. Most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are making an assumption; it is done without conscious thought or recognition. Frequently our suppositions are right on target. Often, though, they are built only out of our own experience; they have nothing to do with the reality of the person or situation with whom we are dealing.
I am ashamed to admit that I never really made the necessary effort to get to know my extremely shy coworker. Looking back at the situation through the lens of many years and acquired knowledge, though, I suspect that the very introverted woman may have suffered from disorder such as Asperger’s Syndrome.
But that, too, is just my assumption.