The usual error

by Kyeli on January 12, 2009

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Chapter 1: The usual error

Cover Illustration

The usual error is assuming that other people are just like you.

Assuming that others think like you, would react to a certain situation like you would, or value the same things you do — all of these are examples of the usual error. Psychologists call it false consensus bias: we project our own perceptions, opinions, and emotions onto another person, as if our experiences were theirs. We all do this. We do it all the time; that’s why it’s called the usual error. Making the usual error isn’t something to fear, it’s something to notice. In our experience, most miscommunications stem from the usual error. When you learn to recognize that it’s happening, you can turn arguments into opportunities for understanding.

The usual error manifests in many forms, often subtly. We assume that others’ boundaries are the same as ours. We assume that others’ communication styles and personality types are the same as ours. We assume that others can know what we’re thinking and know what we need without us having to ask. We assume that others’ definitions for words are the same as ours and we judge the intent behind their words based on our own assumptions. We assume that others’ memories of shared events are the same as ours. We assume that others value the same things we do and fear the same things we do. We assume that others’ bodies have the same physical limitations and thresholds as ours. We assume all kinds of things about other people all the time.

Everyone does this. It’s not bad or wrong; it’s part of being human. The usual error is something that happens behind the scenes, in the subconscious mind. We’ve even made the usual error in this book! We teach communication techniques that work well for us, but they might not all work as well for you.

Kyeli’s Story: Making the Usual Error

Pace runs her fingers through my hair. Her fingers tangle, rub my scalp. I pull away slightly, “Don’t rat my hair!” Pace made the usual error — what she was doing feels good to her when I do the same thing, but it doesn’t feel good to me.

I cook up some Bagel Bites for Pace. I give them to her and notice the slight crinkle in her nose. I ask her if there’s a problem. “Yeah,” she says, “these are… um… too done for me.” I made the usual error — I like my Bagel Bites to be ridiculously brown and she likes hers still squishy.

I finish using the internet and close the browser window. Pace sits down and grumbles at me, “Why do you close the window?” I made the usual error — I like to close all the windows when I’m done at the computer, but Pace prefers to leave them open.

It’s 11pm. I call my mom, and am surprised when she groggily answers the phone. “Were you asleep? I’m sorry!” I made the usual error — I stay up late, so 11pm isn’t late to me, but to my mom, it’s after bedtime!

Katie asks me for assistance in dyeing her hair. I wind up pulling her hair a lot, and hurting her scalp — again, I made the usual error. You have to pull pretty hard on my hair to hurt me, so I assumed Katie’s scalp was as tough as mine, but hers is actually quite sensitive.

Laura is visiting and we’re all watching a movie. Pace and I talk to each other and at the characters. Laura gets annoyed, because she prefers silence during movies. Another case of the usual error — we were engaging in our typical behavior, assuming she wouldn’t mind because we don’t!

Rachel scoops up my kitten and ruffles the fur on his belly. The kitten gives her a deep scratch. She made the usual error — her cat loves that sort of affection, so she didn’t think about my kitten not wanting the same treatment.

Pace gets up from the couch in the middle of an episode of Angel and I hit the pause button. “Don’t pause it!” she shouts. I had forgotten she dislikes interruptions in the middle of a show and since I don’t mind them, I paused. The usual error again!

The usual error boils down to assuming that others experience the exact same reality we do. Since our own perspective is the only one we experience directly, we make these kinds of assumptions a lot. These guesses and projections about other people allow us to get by, but unfortunately, most of the time our assumptions are wrong. When someone doesn’t act as we expect, we often react with surprise or anger. The other person’s behavior violates our expectations of a nicely ordered and predictable world. Because they do things that we wouldn’t, we think that makes them wrong.

That’s one way to look at it, but another way is to appreciate the differences between yourself and others. It can be hard to remember this when you’re feeling angry, afraid, or upset, but think about this: how boring would it be if everyone were the same? It’s the differences between us that allow for admiration, cooperation, learning, synergy, and in many cases, love. You have the power; you can choose to appreciate these differences instead of getting angry about them. Keep that in mind when you notice yourself making the usual error.

The usual error can even be helpful! It’s a way that people subconsciously communicate their needs. For example, if a friend or lover is giving you a back massage, they will probably rub you the way they would like to be rubbed. They’re making the usual error and you can use it to your advantage, or at least to their advantage. Take note of what they do, how they massage, and what spots they focus on. Then when you rub their back, you’ll have a good idea of what will feel good to them. This technique also works for sex, if you account for anatomical differences.

You may notice a similarity between the usual error and the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, others may not want or need the same things as you. The usual error is the flaw in the Golden Rule.

Joan and Larry’s Example: The Flaw in the Golden Rule

Joan is honest, open, and blunt. She appreciates when her friends “call her on her shit” and respects those who don’t “sugar-coat the truth.”

Larry is sensitive, emotional, and kind. He appreciates when his friends offer help in a gentle way and respects those who are considerate of others’ feelings.

If Joan acted according to the Golden Rule, she would do unto Larry as she would have Larry do unto her. She would prefer that Larry be open and blunt with her, and so according to the Golden Rule, she will treat Larry openly and bluntly as well. This will not be a kindness to Larry, who will be hurt by Joan because he will find her harsh and disrespectful. Communication won’t happen.

Likewise, if Larry acted according to the Golden Rule, he would treat Joan gently, being careful not to offend her. This would not be a kindness to Joan, who will not listen to Larry because she will consider him wishy-washy and spineless. Communication won’t happen.

The Golden Rule makes the usual error; it assumes that other people are just like you. “Of course others wish to be treated exactly like I wish to be treated!” How about instead, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them”? This is the Platinum Rule. It’s the version of the Golden Rule that doesn’t make the usual error.

Noticing and correcting ourselves when we make the usual error has improved our lives in many ways. We see others more clearly, no longer merely seeing mirror images of our own faces. We appreciate other people’s differences and strengths. When we poke our heads out from our bubble of assumptions, we hear the truth spoken by our loved ones. We still make the usual error all the time, but now that we’re more aware of it, we can correct it. We now communicate with others in a way that is clearer, more true, and more free from the assumptions that blind us. As we continue, we’ll show you how we correct various forms of the usual error in our daily lives, and how you can do it too!


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