Understanding others

Understanding others is an essential part of how we navigate our world. Unfortunately, unless we’ve followed someone around for a long time, we are missing a lot of data that can help us really know them. We have to make predictions or guesses based on available information. Imagine having to buy a gift for someone you recently met. You don’t really know everything they like but you know you like scented candles and this person seems to be like you in a lot of ways, so you buy them a scented candle.

You are relying on your own preferences as a point of reference. Your brain has to make the best guess possible about what your new friend likes so basing the decision on what it knows (i.e., what you like) makes a lot of sense. Now this might work or it might not. Your friend could love the candle or they could hate having artificial scents in their house. You did what you could with the information you had available: that this person is similar to you in many ways and that you like candles. Regardless of how the gift was received, you might do the exact same thing next time you find yourself in a similar situation. However, it is also important to be aware that you are making a judgment based on your personal perspective and preferences.

Gift giving is low stakes for the most part, but what about bringing up politics with a new acquaintance, or someone at your new job? Don’t assume anything. Be conscious of the fact that people – even those who seem to be just like you in a lot of ways – have different points of view and can have different beliefs, preferences and expectations. Do assume that they probably don’t want salt in their coffee but wait for more evidence before you reach any strong conclusions about their way of thinking.