In most cases, people like to avoid the word “assume” because it involves conjecture that can often lead to misunderstanding by taking a risk. However, inherent in taking a risk is the probable potential for success. Allow me to usurp this word for good and repurpose it for a positive spin. To assume the best in a cross-cultural encounter carries with it tremendous power for increased understanding. The advice to “look on the bright side” was given to me years ago as a way to approach interpersonal relationships and serves as the foundation for all successful relationships I have built since then.
At the root of “assuming the best” I have to begin with the premise that one can either choose to assume the worst or assume the best. Once I have taken that fork in the road, every decision from there on out has to support my initial decision. In my experience, assuming the worst leads to a downward spiral where each subsequent action confirms ever-worsening suppositions and consequences that can often lead to conflict and tattered relationships. On the other hand, assuming the best tends to lead on an upward track towards clarification, continuing collaboration and confident relationships.
To cite a personal encounter of my own, I draw upon an exchange I had with a woman in Ecuador some years ago. I was painfully aware of an embarrassing skin condition from which I suffered and thought I could interact with people without them noticing. However, it was as obvious as the nose on my face. This well-meaning lady approached me and offered a remedy for my skin condition consisting of avocadoes and olive oil. Coming from the USA, this sort of unsolicited advice for such a personal ‘affliction’ could be considered rude and intrusive. I was faced with a choice about how to react. I could choose to be offended and become confrontational or I could accept the kind advice as her sincere desire to help me. Either way, my reaction paved the way for what followed next. If I retaliated either in person or later by complaining to someone else to assuage my wounded ego, the situation could have escalated and led to further offense, confirming a stereotypical notion that this culture is hot headed and provocative. On the other hand, if I thanked her graciously and inquired about the application of said remedy it could lead to further confirmations that Ecuador is a friendly country that is sincerely interested in the well being of their neighbors.
Granted, some may view this approach as a starry-eyed, naïve way of viewing the world leaving one vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. What is needed in reality is more trust and less judgment in intercultural relations. In the Status Report on the Intercultural Profession published by Susan Salzbrenner, Tanja Schulze & Anja Franz for the year 2014, it was reported that some of the biggest hurdles intercultural trainers come across show up as stereotypes, racism, challenging dominant paradigms, and hegemonial thinking. All of these behaviors stem from assuming the worst rather than allowing any given situation to be seen objectively for its own merit. As part of the economy of thought, we tend to process situations in light of previous experience in order for the brain to catalogue and sort out what we encounter. We can expect more from this global-savvy generation. We can expect that they will not be swept along with the current of mob mentality. We can rise above the generalizations and look at an individual with the freedom to choose for themself and always have the option of choosing a nobler course of action. When the outcome seems to be teetering on the edge of escalating into a confrontation; giving someone the benefit of the doubt dispels tension. What comes next is a request for clarification, an attempt at reconciliation and an opportunity for growth. Tell me if in your intercultural encounters you have found that “assuming the best” has helped kindle fires that warm and draw people together rather than sowing flames of contention and division. I look forward to a productive and constructive dialogue.