I get letters from readers. Oh boy, do I get letters from readers! I received one in response to my September 11, 2005, column entitled “Have You Thanked Mexico Yet?”. The subject line of this guy’s e-mail read, “Have You Thanked Mexico Yet?–For what? A truckload of tortillas?”
Now, lest I betray the convictions about which I write, let me say that I understand this guy has his opinions. He is entitled to Free Speech. I do not begrudge him his opinion. Readers can write me and have “their say”. However, readers rarely want me to return the favor by allowing me to respond to their emails and letting me have “my say”. After all, if they go to all that trouble to think of such clever things like, “Have You Thanked Mexico Yet?–For what? A truckload of tortillas?”, wouldn’t I be rude NOT to respond?
(By the way did you know that the word, “baloney”, as in “phony-baloney” is spelled, “baÃ?Â·loÃ?Â·ney” and is a variant of the word, “bologna”? You would be amazed what you can learn when you finally figure out there is something called a dictionary where you can learn all sorts of things. Moving on.) 1
What is with the issue of, “Have You Thanked Mexico Yet?–For what? A truckload of tortillas?”? Why are so many Americans seemingly ready to keep negative stereotypes about Mexicans stuck in their crops? Why do so many of “us” want to believe that a Mexican cannot have a good motive?
I could respond to this reader’s snide remark with unfair and gross generalizations about Americans. However, to make a generalization that all Americans are ________ would be as unfair as the never-ending stream of gross generalizations I get in my inbox about Mexicans.
Tell me then, because this is too hard for my feeble brain, why are so many people willing to live their lives according to untested assumptions?
May I suggest you take the following little test? I have used it in a recent struggle with this matter of untested assumptions.
SYMPTOM ONE: You hear something that doesn’t square with your dearly-held beliefs. Your chest starts feeling tight, you start breathing hard, and your head starts pounding. You feel you might stroke out or at least come close to pitching a major hissy-fit. If these are true, then you are living your life according to untested assumptions. Either that or you are having a really bad hair day and your kid just threw up.
SYMPTOM TWO: If you hear something that doesn’t square with your dearly-held beliefs, you have this urge to write the most insanely vitriolic e-mail to an editor. You are so upset you even demand someone apologize for your erroneously perceived misspelling of a single word.
SYMPTOM THREE: You hear something that doesn’t square with your dearly-held beliefs. It so upsets you that you are moved to criminal acts such as spamming the person with whom you disagree. You even send him three, count them–three, computer viruses by e-mail. You are so upset you even forget to disguise the e-mail and put your real name and e-mail address on the virus-laden e-mail.
Recognize the Assumption: If all three of the above symptoms characterize your reaction to news stories you read or hear, then you are living your life according to untested assumptions. You should probably keep the phone number of your local county mental-health center handy.
Write down your assumptions: “A documented assumption is more likely to be tested than one held loosely in the mind because assumptions are more tangible in writing, and reading an assumption creates objective distance.” 2
Turn your assumption into a question: “Turning your assumptions into questions isn’t as simple as putting a question mark at the end of a sentence. You also must make a mental shift from belief to curiosity. In order to do that, you may have to ask yourself questions like: “Why do I think this?” “Could I be mistaken about this?” “Does recent experience support my belief?” “How can I add depth and richness to my understanding?” 3
Can you begin to imagine the humility involved in this last step? In other words, you will actually be asking yourself probing questions. You will be doing some self-examination.
“Now just how and why would I think Mexico is bringing nothing but a handful of tortillas to the Katrina hurricane victims?”
“How do I really know that Mexico’s President Fox is in cahoots with the drug lords? Can I read the man’s mind?”
“How do I really know the Mexicans who are helping America’s hurricane victims are just performing an empty gesture”?
(And, by the way did you know that the word, “baloney”, as in “phony-baloney” is spelled, “baÃ?Â·loÃ?Â·ney”?)
NowÃ¢Â?Â¦I’ve had my say!
2 Robert Hargrove, Mastering the Art of Creative Collaboration (McGraw-Hill, 1998)Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990