Are you too quick to make assumptions?
Last weekend I was lucky enough to see this video. I felt happy and proud that this message from 8 years ago holds up so solidly. It’s smartly done and gets a good message across that needs to be heard. But I want to take this message one step farther into everyday life. Because it’s a cogent lesson that can improve how we think about approaching the world. The whole conversation appeals to me because it is essentially a discussion about intentional speech, labels, and choice.
One of the messages that can be distilled from Jay’s video is that it’s not the person who is racist, it’s the message they chose to convey. The idea is to separate the action from the person. What they did is not the same as what they are. This is what I want to dig into a bit with you.
I’ll preface this discussion by saying that projecting what someone says, does, wears, or how they act, onto them and generalizing that person based on those things is treacherous water. This is slightly different than stereotyping, where one assumes a set of characteristics all apply to a specific population. In either case, assumptions are used. These can later turn into more permanent and more-able-to-spread labels. And while assumptions and labels in some instances are useful, applying them to people almost never is. It is this which has the power to create wars, terrorism, segregation, and general separation from people for no good reason. Just because someone popped a pill doesn’t mean they’re a no-good druggie. They may have just been following a doctor’s order to treat an ailment.
Intentional speech is the first step in being more understanding and less confrontational. If someone says something you disagree with, this does not automatically mean everything they say will be disagreed with, or say anything about the content of that person’s character. So deciding to separate the action from the person is vital in beginning to stay on an even keel. Pointing out what someone said is a fact. Pointing out and assuming what someone is, is conjecture, not provable. Instead, it quickly turns into a verbal mess; a cesspool of needless blame and defensiveness.
This approach works in many areas of life. In fact, it works for positive and negative actions. In the workplace: ‘Your work area is sloppy,’ instead of ‘You’re so sloppy.’ Alternatively: ‘That analysis was very thorough and detailed,’ instead of ‘You’re very detailed.’ It’s easy to say something about someone, and harder to point out specific actions, but the effort goes a long way. Talking about actions hits people differently than talking about that person themselves. It’s much easier to change an action than an entire person. In intimate relationships this is a much more constructive way of talking with a partner.
There’s other language that should be used that make the statement come from yourself. “I feel,” or “I think,” for instance. “I don’t like when you roll in goose poop,” I’ll tell my dog. He doesn’t really care, but if he did he would be able to ponder the act of not doing so. If instead I had said “You stink!” he would have just said “Of course…I’m a dog,” and went on his merry way to look for more. Many kids and partners want to please. This form of constructive language allows them to easily grab onto things to do so instead of getting a hit to their ego or self-esteem. In a way, it’s kind of like the difference between empowerment and insult. One has the power of building while the other has the power of tearing down.
This last sentence is my way of showing how this all comes back to choice. Once you know there is a difference, which will you choose?