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Husnara Begum, associate editor & career coach

Before Covid19 struck and commuting into London featured regularly in my weekly routine, I once had an entire train carriage load of people stare at me in shock and awe. It wasn’t because I’d performed an outrageous act or left my flies undone. It was all because many of them had made massively incorrect assumptions about me.

In short, the story goes as follows. I was on a packed commuter train on my way home and decided to give my mum a call. We had a brief conversation in my mother tongue – Bengali and I had already noticed some of my fellow commuters eavesdropping, trying to figure out what language I was speaking in.

However, it wasn’t until I hung up and called my husband when pretty much everyone in earshot looked over at me and started listening in. I responded by jokingly saying: “Bet you didn’t think I could speak English like that? In fact, I’m sure some of you thought as a wheelchair user I couldn’t speak at all, correct?”

A couple of brave souls admitted that they’d jumped to incorrect conclusions about me and said they felt embarrassed feeling surprised upon hearing someone Asian speaking such ‘polished’ English or indeed any English at all. I was of course far too polite to flag their microaggression.

The above story is one of many. Indeed, as an Asian wheelchair user I’ve lost count of the endless assumptions made about me by others, particularly outside of my professional network. These range from my level of intellect, social background and relationship status etc and have occurred in my encounters with healthcare staff, waiters, shop assistants, fellow travellers in airport lounges or at the hotel poolside and, dare I say it, law firm reception staff.

I used to brush most instances off as blissful ignorance, an innocent mistake or a harmless joke. But more recently, such behaviour whether conscious or otherwise, has really started to grate on me, and I’d even go as far as saying that some comments have left me feeling angry and upset. Hardly, a great basis to form healthy and meaningful relationships with others.

Therefore, try to avoid making assumptions, including about what others know or are thinking and vice versa. Instead, reflect on your own belief system and dig into why you hold such an attitude and its origins. Also, aim to switch presumptions into respectful open questions and then listen attentively. This will ensure any decisions / conclusions you make are based on accurate facts rather than on what you think, or already know. Related to this, remember to gain and appreciate multiple perspectives / viewpoints, including educating yourself and broadening your own horizons.

The problem with incorrect assumptions, however, isn’t just limited to what you think or believe about others or an event / situation. It can be just as detrimental making incorrect assumptions about yourself by making comments such as “I can’t do that” or “I’ll be terrible at it” instead of saying “I’ve not tried that before, so not sure how good I’ll be but happy to have a go.”

Predicting the future or crystal ball gazing is an unhelpful self-limiting belief, which if left unchecked, has the potential of holding you back and can stop you from reaching your full potential. In the context of starting conversations with others, it can create awkwardness, which in turn might even manifest itself as a microaggression or at best result in clumsy small talk that leaves you feeling even more self-conscious then eventually shutting up. The end result is that you’ve unwittingly created a potential boundary between you and others that may hinder your chances of properly getting to know the relevant individuals.

Making incorrect assumptions sabotages effective communication and can lead both you and the people you engage with down mistaken paths and ultimate conflict. So, the next time you encounter a stranger why not start by asking an open question rather than judging them simply by what you see.

Husnara Begum, associate editor & career coach