I bring my lunch to work almost every day because I’ve been trying to eat only certain, healthy foods and save money, too. Even though I bring my lunch almost every day, I also make a run to the local fast food chain almost every day to get a large, unsweetened iced tea with lemon. Sometimes I’ll grab one at Starbucks, but at $1.06, fast-food iced tea is the best value. I’ve been doing this for most of the time that I’ve worked at my current job–over six years.

A few years back, someone who no longer works here couldn’t help but notice, I guess, that I was carrying a large styrofoam cup in my hand almost every day. And being who this person was couldn’t help but make the following comment, “Those calories are going to add up real fast.” This person was assuming that either my cup was filled with high calorie soda and/or that I had also been eating fast food, neither of which was true. And of course this person was trying to tell me that I was going to get fat or perhaps fatter? Yeah, there’s that.

But I was kind of trapped in the assumption. If I had protested and said, “Oh, no. This cup is filled with unsweetened iced tea, which has no calories, and I hardly ever eat fast food, or if I do I eat a salad…” it would have sounded like I was on the defense. But by not saying anything, I allowed this person to validate their own assumption that I was heading down an ugly path of fast-food gluttony.

As Lemony Snicket said, “Assumptions are dangerous things to make.”  Even seemingly safe, “obvious” assumptions are anything but. They’re traps. Not only can one be trapped in someone else’s assumption, more often than not, one can be unnecessarily trapped by one’s own assumptions. In the workplace, the assumption trap breeds negativity and a culture of distrust.

How? Assumptions exist in the void left by unexpressed concerns, questions, or fears. By making assumptions we avoid a conversation. Relying on assumptions also indicates a certain disregard for the truth. It’s easier to assume something than to ask, especially if our assumption fits our own worldview better than the truth, which may make us uncomfortable or force us to change the way we look at something or someone. Assumptions create resentment, which feeds directly into negativity and distrust. How can you trust someone who would rather make assumptions than make the effort to determine what’s real and what’s not?

Assumptions are dangerous things to make, but they’re also a safe place in which to reside. There’s a certain reassurance in believing your own truth without regard to its veracity. Sometimes believing our own assumptions allows us to hold on to resentment or anger or hurt that stems more from our own insecurities than from the actions or words of anyone else. Making assumptions also provides protection from unwanted interference. If you can convince yourself that your coworker would simply not be interested in the project you have your sights set on, well, the better for you. If you assume that you can do “it” better and faster than anyone else, then you have no reason to ask for help.

The worst thing about assumptions is that they tend to be judgmental. An assumption can’t exist without some kind of predetermination having been made about the very essence of someone or something. My former colleague assumed that I had bad eating habits and just didn’t care about what I put into my body. I certainly felt judged.

Most assumptions are never voiced in that way; most are made silently. So while your assumption may not make anyone feel judged, you are making a silent judgment, which may be unfair and affect the way you engage with that person. An opportunity for personal growth may be lost due to an inability to overcome a preconceived notion.

Has anybody noticed yet that the entire premise of this post is based on an assumption? On many assumptions? When my former colleague made that random observation, I assumed the following:

  • He/she had seen me carrying fast-food cups before
  • He/she thought I was drinking high-calorie soda
  • He/she thought I had eaten fast food many times
  • He/she thought fast food was unhealthy
  • He/she thought I shouldn’t be consuming that many calories
  • He/she thought I had unhealthy eating habits
  • He/she thought I was lazy about what I ate
  • He/she thought I was fat or going to get fat, fast
  • He/she was being sarcastic
  • He/she was being mean
  • He/she was socially awkward with no social graces

In fact, I have no idea what that person meant by that comment or what they were thinking. Still don’t. I can assume, but we all know the danger (or safety) in that. I should have just asked.

Trapped by my own assumptions. They’ll get you every time.