Monday, May 9, 2011

Don't Make Assumptions, Test the Water

For the past five years our family has been living in a small college town. Although my husband works in Manhattan and has a long commute, we decided to stay even after I stopped working at the university. We agreed that it’s a great place to raise our two children and we have made some valuable friendships here. It was at our daughter’s pre-school that we met Bob and Carol (not their real names). Both are musicians, with Carol taking time out from her career to raise their children. Since I do most of my work from home these days, she and I felt we had a lot in common. Our husbands liked each other, our children played together peacefully, so we socialized quite frequently.  Ideal, right? Well it is, but it almost wasn’t.

During a casually dinner at their home not too long ago, in the midst of the usual friendly chatting back and forth, Bob asked my husband why he had made such a drastic career change, from professor of philosophy to the health care business world. As Jonathan talked about his reasons, he mentioned that between those two positions, he had worked on the national campaign for a particular presidential candidate – thus revealing the political party to which we belong.

“Hang on, you are a ------?” asked Bob in disbelief. “You mean you’re a -----?" asked my husband, equally astounded.  With so much in common, they couldn’t believe they didn’t share the same political views.

There was silence.  Carol and I looked at each other, and then simultaneously said  “So, anyway…" and changed the subject.  I don’t remember to what.  Both men joined in the new topic very quickly. We all had decided that there was too much to lose by going down that road.

When we got home, Jonathan and I talked about how easy it is to put your foot in it, by assuming that the people we like so much and whose company we so thoroughly enjoy would automatically share our views.  Studies show that these assumptions are very common – we all tend to think that our opinions are more popular than they actually are, particularly among people we like. 

Awkward situations like this happen every day in areas where people hold strong beliefs (e.g., religion, gay marriage, abortion, etc.)  So if the conversation takes that kind of turn with someone who matters to you, and your goal is to protect your relationship and avoid the silence (or worse, an angry exchange), don’t assume you agree. Test the waters gingerly before jumping in!

Good luck with your goal!

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