History, instinct, a bad smell – loads of stuff leads us to make assumptions about our fellow humans. We should probably cease and desist, says Rachel Fairburn.
We make assumptions every single day. Whenever we meet a new person we make snap decisions about their personality, interests and browsing history, often based on what they are wearing, what they look like and how they speak, though not always on what they actually say.
You may, for example, observe a stranger who is wearing a pair of Crocs and clutching a copy of the Daily Mail and the first thing that pops into your mind is, “Not my kind of human.” They may be a perfectly wonderful human but you have decided they are to be avoided as a crashing bore, all because of their footwear and choice of toilet paper.
Forgive the trite example but the assumptions we make have always fascinated me, mainly because I am often on the receiving end. As a comedian who happens to be a woman, some audience members see me walk on stage and decide I’m not going to be funny. This is due to the greatest assumption/urban myth of all time, you know the one, that women aren’t funny. Some people choose to believe it more than the phantom hitchhiker or the gerbil-loving movie star, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
“I make assumptions myself. I assume when politicians rock up to a factory wearing a hard hat and high viz, they don’t think we’re convinced they can actually fix or make anything.”
At best, assumptions frequently lead to misunderstandings, which as we know from the sitcom, can be humorous. In a previous relationship, I attended a post-gig party where I was mistaken for my boyfriend’s daughter. He didn’t have a daughter and was only a couple of years older than me but, as a four foot ten adult woman with a face that has barely changed since my 10th birthday party, I did look rather winsome next to his six foot two frame.
One of his acquaintances looked horrified as he bought me a Jack Daniels and Coke and took it upon himself to ask me, earnestly, if I had any ID. Of course I did and his assumption led to an awkwardly amusing evening. Quite why a grown man would be at an aftershow party with a child I don’t know – well not in recent times anyway.
Had his colleague taken the time to speak to me rather than relying on an inaccurate assumption, I’d have chatted about the futility of existence and within the first few sentences of conversation he would have realised that only a person who’d lived through the Tamagotchi craze of the mid-90s could be so jaded by life. (I assumed mine would stay alive with minimal attention.)
At worst, an assumption can become a stereotype. I’m a northern working-class woman and I have come up against genuine prejudice about my Mancunian accent. Three months or so into my comedy career, I performed in the semi-final of a big competition. I didn’t have the best gig ever, but the supposedly constructive criticism I received afterwards was from a promoter who asked, “Are you a character act? I assumed you were because of your accent.” This was their only comment. I’d have rather heard, “Well that was rubbish, wasn’t it?” At least I wouldn’t have been confused.
Since then, I have noticed that northern accents are often used by TV shows, in advertising and even by some fellow comedians as a way to represent stupidity. Take the latest Cadbury’s Crunchie advert, where the female actor develops an exaggerated northern accent when she goes from serious business woman to a lass with that “Friday feeling”. I’m sure some of you will assume I have a chip on my shoulder about this, and you’d be right. I have a whole tray of them and they’re smothered in gravy.
Don’t get me wrong, I make assumptions myself. I assume when politicians rock up to a factory wearing a hard hat and high viz, they don’t think we’re convinced they can actually fix or make anything. I’ve sometimes judged people on first impressions. I have done it with audiences at gigs, deciding they will be hostile and been happily proved wrong. But I try to keep my assumptions in check.
Assumptions come from a place of uncertainty that we all have inside us. It might seem idealistic to say that we should find out facts before assuming or judging on appearance or accent. I’m all for trusting instincts, but sometimes we should assume that our assumptions are wrong. Though that said, I’ll assume you’ve enjoyed this article.
Catch Rachel’s show, Skulduggery, at the Edinburgh Fringe, 18-28 August.
Or see her preview at London’s Museum of Comedy on 9 July.
She’s also half of the dead good All Killa No Filla podcast with Kiri Pritchard-McLean: http://allkillanofilla.podomatic.com
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Rachel Fairburn is a stand-up comic, co-host of the All Killa No Filla podcast and lover of leopard print.