… is assume others are just like us. For better or worse. Whether we’re an incredibly empathetic, kind, generous, loving person or a mass murderer, it’s true. The most dangerous thing we can do is assume others are just like us. And we do it all the time. We can’t help it.
Everything we think is informed by comparing ourselves and our experiences to situations and people. It’s why we either cry with our friend when they go through a breakup, turn into the friend that takes them to singles bars every night, or back away and “give them space.” Sure, there are elements of sink or swim for some of us. Maybe we really don’t know what to do, so we do nothing at all. But for the most part, we’re treating them like we’d want to be treated in that situation. If we adored their ex, we might be more likely to cry with them. If we thought the ex was an ass, we want to quickly help them get over it. And, regardless of what we thought of their ex, if we would like space in that situation, that’s what we dole out.
As adults, we often think following the golden rule doesn’t happen that often. Really, it happens a lot more than we think. We’re just not recognizing it—and maybe it doesn’t work so seamlessly beyond grade school, anyway.
The “I’s” Have It
Increasingly, most westerners today were raised in a generation where they were encouraged to be an individual. To give their opinion and to speak their mind. We’re now consecutive generations of “I’s.” There are certainly benefits to developing and owning your voice, with plenty of research to back it up. Naturally, there will also be some drawbacks.
As we’re being encouraged more and more to shine as individuals, we’re losing the skills and perspective gained when we’re encouraged to think as a community. Intent on honing our individualism, we’re getting tunnel vision. For better or worse, it’s getting tougher to see that other people might not be “like us” at all. They might not have the same goals or values, and they certainly don’t have the same experiences. They don’t have the same reactions to a myriad of life situations.
But here we all go, bumbling along and following the golden rule. Treating everyone like we’d like to be treated and thinking we’re doing good in the process.
The Empathy Side Effect
Assuming others are just like us puts before us a dangerous minefield. It dulls our perceptions and slows down our critical thinking skills. It makes us lump People (and especially people who we really deem “like us” based on race, gender, socioeconomic background and so on) into one homogenous blob that’s a murky reflection of us. Or, of who we think we are.
It makes us stop listening, or over-talk the person because we think we already have it all figured out. It makes us quick to dole out advice, lumping together some kind of inspirational speech that we’d like to hear ourselves if we were in their shoes. It gives us all these big, shiny Band-Aids that we’re quick to slap on everyone we come across so we can turn around and label ourselves a “good person.”
The reality is that, just like your parents told you (well, if you had doting parents), you really are a special snowflake. We all are, in some regards. And that means that there’s nobody “just like us” or even remotely like us. To think any different is incredibly presumptuous, not to mention vain.
So, what can we do? It’s both the simplest and most difficult task of all: We learn to listen. Actively listen. Not just be quiet while we wait for the other person to get done talking so we get our turn, but just listen. Process. Ask questions and listen some more. We’re humans, and when we think we’re being heard we’re very quick to talk, to share, and to explain. That’s the key to genuine connection, learning, growth and bonds.