Assumptions are some of the earliest developed tools we humans have, ingrained in us from those older ones who “know better.” Whether learned through stereotypes or overdone jokes, it’s not particularly uncommon to have ready-made expectations about what identities people may have the first time you meet them. It’s very human to feel the guttural need to categorize new people, whether it’s to remember them more easily or for our own personal interests. This initial reaction, however, often creates false identities for people in our own minds, associating them with other people, things, or events that they may have absolutely no ties to. And it is for this reason that I honestly believe that we need to stop the urge to fit people in ready-made boxes with neat labels and instead try to see the immensely intricate layers they have. We need to try to recognize people’s own unique identities, rather than the ones that make the most sense to us upon first inspection.
Today, we are seemingly innocuous individuals who are trying to make the best of our own journeys whilst constantly chancing upon new and unknown ones. And in these new encounters, the instant labeling of people sometimes comes as second nature.
When people initially meet me — and often even after several months of knowing me — they see a white girl who speaks English fluently and almost inevitably see a vivid scrawl of “American” on my character. When I identify as Italian, the statement is usually ignored until actual Italian is heard from my mouth, which is quite rare for me to do around most people. People are then usually surprised because they realize they need to change their initial assumptions, and it suddenly becomes a topic of conversation. And to be quite frank, it never rubs me the right way, because if they had just listened and bothered to actually get to know me, they would’ve never needed to change their assumptions. Brushing aside the identities I give to myself benefits noone and instead tends to promote divisions between myself and others.
Since the start of my semester in Northern Ireland, which has been focused largely on identity, my peers and I have been learning to separate our assumptions from the facts that are then given to us. While the conflict that occurred in Ireland has been largely assumed to be about religion, with Protestants pitted against Catholics, the actual details paint a much more complex picture. Each person that has welcomed my cohort into their country and shared parts of their story with us has, for the most part, quickly labeled themselves. These labels have sometimes separated people from their Northern Irish peers and sometimes have brought them together. What we have found, however, is that no matter the labels Northern Irish people give themselves, there are similarities that draw them all together, and differences that distance all of them. Whether they are self-proclaimed “enemies” or reluctant friends, every individual carries with them a personal history that is rife with unique experiences that set them apart from the group they ask society to place them in. But it is not only an individual’s personal history that gives them layers — the history of their ancestors and the land they feel their heart belongs to have also given them a personality and persona that make them different. It would be easy to walk into Northern Irish society, which has been through conflict that not many will ever be able to understand, and label half the group as victims and the other as murderers or oppressors. It would be just as easy to walk in and see half of them as terrorists. But the truth is so much more complex that it is stupid to give a label that diminishes the people they are. Not only that, but it also leaves the visitor with a profound lack of knowledge about this place and these people, and this is then perpetuated each time their story is told by the visitor.
Assumptions are widely popular and often done on instinct, whether people admit it or not. After all, it’s an instinct that is deeply ingrained in us to give a definition to something and then just move on to something new. We want to understand, and in that pursuit, we have a tendency to brush aside the small details, which then leads to massive misunderstandings. While we do this with events and things, we also do this with people we encounter each and every single day. And this is not only harmful to them, but also to ourselves. What knowledge are we missing out on by engaging in assumptions? What relationships are we accidentally missing out on due to our own inability to distance ourselves from empty assumptions?