Assume Better

A Selfish Reason for Choosing Compassion

I was driving to work the other day, in typical morning rush hour traffic, and another driver was being far too fast and aggressive: weaving through traffic, riding bumpers, cutting people off. When they cut in front of me, causing me to slam on my brakes which almost caused me to be rear-ended, I got mad. This driver was being a jerk: selfish, road hog, inconsiderate, dangerous. Why do they think they have more right to the road than any of the rest of us?

This morning, the same thing: overly aggressive driver, going too fast, riding bumpers, cutting people off. But this time, I saw the look on the driver’s face as they passed me:

Weeping. Sadness. Panic.

They were clearly in the midst of some kind of emergency. This person had a reason they needed to get somewhere quickly. They weren’t just being selfish and inconsiderate. Their need for the road actually was more important than mine.

This doesn’t excuse the dangerous driving: that was still a problem for the rest of us. But instead of getting angry, I felt empathy. I had compassion for this driver. I wondered what they faced and hoped they could get where they needed to be on time, without causing an accident.

In my first example, when I got angry at the other driver, it left me in a bad mood. My hackles rose, I was geared up for conflict with no way to resolve it. I got to work feeling on edge, in a negative headspace. This was not a useful way for me to start my day. It didn’t help me do my work.

This morning, when I felt compassion and sympathy for the other driver, it left me in a much better headspace. Compassion is a far more useful emotion to bring into the public service work I do.

The reality is neither driver will ever know how I reacted to them, nor how my reactions affected my mood. My reactions have no impact on them whatsoever. But the ways I react in these circumstances has a profound effect on me. When I assumed the other driver was selfish and inconsiderate, it affected me in a very negative way. When I assumed more positively about the other driver, it made my day better.

This got me thinking about how we make assumptions.

What we assume in any given circumstances determines how we react. Our reactions affect us far more than they affect the other person. We often don’t know what’s actually going on with the other person, and so we’re assuming and reacting with incomplete information. We could be wrong and our reactions could be unjust.

In the end, the assumptions we make don’t have much of anything to do with the other person. They have a whole lot to do with ourselves.

It’s very difficult, and often impossible, to consciously control our reactions. But we can consciously and intentionally choose what we assume about other people. We can choose assumptions that serve us better.

Another example: My friends and I were out at our regular bar, and we saw a man sitting there who we hadn’t seen before. He was clearly there by himself and we saw him chat up several different women over the course of the evening. He was wearing a wedding ring.

Our immediate impulse was to speculate that this man was cheating on his wife. That seems to be the most likely explanation. But there are other possibilities:

  • Maybe he’s single but wearing a wedding ring because every young man knows married men are more attractive to women. This would still be problematic: dishonest manipulation is never ok. But maybe he’s not cheating on anyone.
  • Maybe he’s in a consensual ethical non-monogamous relationship. Maybe his partners know and they’re fine with it.

There are other possibilities. They may not be likely but they are possible. Later that night, the bar tender told us what was going on with this guy:

He was a recent widower. He had just moved to town for a new job and for a change of scenery, someplace without painful memories. His friends and family encouraged him to get out and meet people, but he wasn’t ready to take off his ring yet. Bars weren’t a thing he and his wife had done very often, so coming to a bar didn’t have any baggage for him. He wasn’t looking for dates or romance, he just wanted to meet people. The bar tender told us he tried to talk to several men, too, but that can be awkward in a non-gay bar filled with single people, and we didn’t notice because of the confirmation bias stemming from our initial assumption.

Most of the time, if you see someone wearing a wedding ring chatting up single people at a bar, they’re probably cheating on their partner. That’s probably the most likely explanation. But it might be something else, no matter how unlikely, and you don’t know for sure. You get to choose what assumptions you make.

Most of the time when someone is being too aggressive on the road, it’s because they’re selfish and inconsiderate. That assumption is the most likely to be correct. But there could be a sympathetic reason why they’re driving that way. It may not be likely, but it is possible. You get to choose what assumptions you make.

What’s particularly empowering about this is it doesn’t really matter whether or not we make a “correct” assumption. When I choose what to assume, it gives me control over how I react in any given situation. I can choose assumptions that best serve me. I choose to assume compassion and sympathy not because I believe it’s a true understanding every time, but because that assumption most often leads to better outcomes.

Assuming the best of people reduces the possibility and frequency of conflict, increases the likelihood of beneficial connections, and opens the door to deeper mutual understanding. It’s usually the best option for everyone involved.

There’s a quote from Hemingway which I love:

“The way to make people trust-worthy is to trust them.”

Compassion is the foundation of trust. If someone isn’t trust-worthy, if they’re not deserving of your compassion, they’ll usually show you pretty quickly. But if we’re unwilling to give trust and compassion in the first place, if we expect others to prove their worthiness, then it becomes almost impossible for anyone to prove themselves well enough, no matter how trust-worthy they may be.

Compassion begets better outcomes, for myself and for my community. So I choose, as often as I can, to assume well of others. Even if my assumption is incorrect, it serves me better than assuming worse of people.

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