Elizabeth Day: You know what happens when you assume…

During the early days of my career, I had an editor whose favourite catchphrase was that ‘assumption is the mother of all mess-ups’. In fact, he used a less salubrious term than ‘mess-ups’ but you get the drift.

Photograph: Jenny Brough. Hair: Fabio Noguiera. Make-up: Ruby Hammer. Trousers: Amanda Wakeley. Jewellery: Alighieri

It was one of those annoying sayings that turned out to be true – and similar to the catchier ‘when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.’

I remember writing a story about celebrity chef Antony Worrall-Thompson (that dates me) and spelling his first name with an erroneous extra ‘h’.

‘Why did you do that?’ the editor asked.

‘I just assumed…’ I stuttered.

I was reminded of this recently when I posted on Instagram. The photo was of me in a radio studio, recording a programme, and the post was designed to encourage people to listen. What I hadn’t noticed was that there was a plastic bottle of water next to me.

A man pointed it out in the comments. ‘Plastic bottle,’ he wrote, accompanied by a shocked cat face emoji. ‘Not on brand.’

The comment was clearly intended to shame me for using a plastic bottle as everyone knows that David Attenborough told us sea life was dying because of people like me. And on one level the commenter was right. On that day, I had placed the importance of the oceans below my need for San Pellegrino. But what bothered me about it was the assumptions this total stranger had made.

First of all: I had never met this man. How on earth would he be able to magically intuit what was ‘on brand’ for me? For all he knew, I was a climate change denier who owned stocks in a single-use plastic manufacturer. (I am not, but he didn’t know me well enough to draw that conclusion.)

The problem with social media is that it has a necessarily flattening effect: you share aspects of your life, but not the whole messy texture of it. And yet there is an assumption that the edited highlights reel is all of it rather than a selective glimpse. This means that followers such as the water bottle man (WBM) believe they know all of you when they don’t. WBM thought he knew where I stood on everything, including plastic, and if he didn’t actually know, then he was certain of what I should think, which was exactly the same as him.

A picture can only convey so much truth. What WBM couldn’t have known was that the day before that photograph was taken, I’d had an ocular migraine – a scary experience involving partial vision loss. I was still feeling fragile, so I had googled what could help and one of the suggestions was carbonated water. I wanted to do a good job on the radio and I was nervous about getting another migraine and being unable to read the script. So I bought some fizzy water. A plastic bottle was the only option available in the shop.

I write this not to shame WBM for his pretty innocuous comment, but because it struck me as a perfect example of how many assumptions we make on a daily basis. In this instance, it was fairly harmless (I put the bottle in the recycling and have reverted to my reusable flask so I truly hope I didn’t kill too many turtles). But in other examples, assumption can have a terrible impact.

Prejudice stems from assumption. A racist will assume a black man driving a nice car must be a thief. A sexist will assume a woman in a boardroom must be the secretary. These assumptions are toxic and dangerous. They come from a place of limited knowledge, where the reflex is to think the worst without examining the context of our own thinking or the context of the other person’s actions.

The migraine passed, by the way, although whether it was because of the sparkling water or not, I can’t possibly assume to know.

This week I’m…

Subscribing

To the Samaritans Feel Good Book Club for a book a month (and other gifts) to boost my wellbeing. All proceeds go to the charity.

Watching

Married at First Sight
Channel 4

Married At First Sight Australia on E4. Couples are matched by experts and meet for the first time on their wedding day. I’m obsessed.

Soaking

Olverum Bath Oil

In Olverum Bath Oil, with its vivifying herbal scent. My friend told me it was the perfect hangover cure. She’s not wrong.