A few weeks ago, we were walking into the neighborhood where we used to live, heading to a goodbye dinner for my sister Anna. My parents stopped to say hi to a passing acquaintance, an expatriate, and, seeing the house we headed for, he asked, "Oh, are you visiting your nanny?"
I was open-mouthed, silent in shock, and quite proud of my mom for responding, rather fiercely, "We are visiting a dear friend who is hosting a goodbye dinner for our daughter."
There's just something weird about seeing an American family visiting a Malaysian family and making the automatic assumption that the relationship is that of nanny/employer.
Assumptions are easy to make. People do it all the time. It's not so terribly bad if you're able to keep said assumptions within your own head, unspoken and unacted upon, forgotten quickly, but if you're silly enough to let them escape from your mouth, they can land you in a bit of trouble.
-Back in high school, I was with a friend and his sister eating dinner. An older man we knew stopped by the table and asked my friend, in reference to his sister, "Oooooohhhhh, is THIS your girlfriend?????" Awkward.
-Angel was once asked, at work in the Burn ICU unit of the hospital, if he had come to Michigan to work in the onion fields.
-An older man, who came to our door to sell something, referred to me as "Brother" the whole time he spoke to me.
-The tour guides who were sent to welcome me to Calvin College and give me and my family a tour of the campus walked straight up to my younger sister Lizzy, shook her hand, and said, "Welcome to Calvin, Rachel!"
-After Lizzy moved to the USA to start college herself, she was occasionally asked by friends of our parents and grandparents how she was enjoying newly-married life.
-While riding in an elevator, a lady pointed at Angel and said, "Pakistani, right?"
-My own dad accidentally congratulated the identical twin brother of the groom on his twin's wedding day.
-My mom, while holding my newborn sister, was approached by an elderly lady and scolded for being far too young to be a mom and told she should have waited till she got married (Mom was in her mid-30s, had a total of 7 kids, and had been married 16 years).
None of these assumptions were life-threatening or utterly unspeakable. For the most part, they actually end up providing pretty funny stories for years to come. If I think about it, I can come up with reasonable explanations--I had pretty short hair at the time I was mistaken for a boy...Lizzy is taller than me and maybe looked like the college-aged sister....my mom looks exceptionally youthful...and identical twins look pretty identical, ya know?
But! All embarrassment and awkwardness could be avoided if we were willing to simply ask questions instead of acting as if we are starting from a place of knowledge. Here's some potential questions:
"Hi, great to meet you all! Which one of you is Rachel?"
"Now, who is this with you?"
"Where are you from?"
"What's your background?"
"What brought you to Michigan?"
"Is this your first baby? She's adorable!"
I'll never be offended by questions...except those asked by doctors. There's something wrong with those people (and I can say that since I'm married to the nurse who, when not working, asks people if they were breastfed as infants). On the whole, I think questions tend to be a much better way of opening up the lines of conversation than assumption-based statements. Next time your brain leaps to a conclusion, take an extra second to formulate a question instead of blurting out whatever you think is the truth. You might just save yourself a little embarrassment.
Has anyone ever made an awkward assumption about you? Have you ever been embarrassed by an assumption you made about someone else?