You have probably seen this amusing video making rounds on the internet this week. It depicts a BBC interview, which was interrupted by the correspondent’s adorably attention-seeking children turning up in the background. A panicked woman burst into the room to round up the kids in a way that adds to the hilarity.

Many internet commenters – and media outlets – assumed that the lady was a nanny. Actually, she is the mother of the children and the wife of the correspondent. This sparked a debate about racial and gender bias, given the mother is Asian and her husband is white.

While the family happens to take this in stride (seen in a follow-up interview), other people online were very offended. The “nanny assumption” caused offence due to the racist/sexist implication that a Korean woman caring for a white man’s children could only be a nanny.

 

What Does This Have to Do with Professional Listening?

I’m not merely piggy-backing on the popularity of this funny clip to grab your attention. OK, maybe I am slightly. However, the discussion surrounding the nanny assumption is actually quite relevant for our purposes. You definitely don’t want to make a similar mistake in the workplace.

Good listeners know how to avoid making assumptions – especially in relation to sensitive topics like race and gender. We can learn two things from the nanny assumption:

  1. People have a tendency to make inferences and assumptions.
  2. Making assumptions, especially related to gender or cultural differences, can go horribly wrong and really offend some people.

Keep this in mind when talking to customers or colleagues. This post will delve further into these two points, and offer some tips about how to avoid dangerous assumptions. These tips are essential for building good working relationships.

 

Everyone Makes Assumptions.

I think it’s safe to assume (ha!) that you have a tendency to make assumptions, because it’s basic human nature. Let’s look into research about why and how this happens.

Anyone who has done undergraduate psychology will be able to tell you that our minds have a wide range of cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are mental short-cuts that we take, especially when dealing with complex information (source). This is why we, being human, make so many assumptions.

For example, you may have heard of confirmation bias, which drives people to follow news outlets that reinforce their political views, rather than news that challenges them. This can lead people to assume that their beliefs are always justified. You can see how confirmation bias might lead to more polarised views, thereby exacerbating political conflicts in a wide range of topics (from race relations to climate change). Nevertheless, it happens often because it’s easier for our brains to process information that conforms to our opinions.

Let’s go back to the BBC interview example. The nanny assumption, made mostly by white westerners, could be the result of the availability heuristic. This is another mental short-cut, which causes people to make assumptions based on the memories or experiences that are readily available to them. It’s possible that in their limited experience, they have seen more Asian female nannies than interracial families. Thus, they leaped to the wrong conclusion that she was a nanny.

 

Miss, Mrs, Ms, or… Prof?

If the relevance of all this to business is still unclear, consider how you address new customers, clients, or colleagues in your correspondences. Have you ever assumed the gender or standing of a person, leading you to use the wrong title? It makes a bad first impression.

Titles are tricky. I’ve always been very aware of this pitfall because of my parents. They were a husband and wife research team that led a lab together. My mother kept her name after they married. My mother’s and father’s proper titles are Prof Florentine and Prof Buus respectively. (Yes, I was given my mother’s surname. My father’s surname, Buus, is my middle name.) Probably much to her frustration, they frequently got letters incorrectly addressed to Prof & Mrs Buus. People often assumed that my mother wasn’t also a professor and that she must have taken her husband’s name.

Story time! It wasn’t always my mother’s name that got mangled in these misunderstandings. Somewhere along the line, my parents were listed on a marketing mailing list as Prof & Mrs Buus. My father’s Danish first name (Søren) isn’t easy to spell, nor is it clearly a male name in English. As a result, my father was sent a Victoria Secret catalogue addressed to “Mrs Sørenne Buus.” He was probably not intended target audience for the women’s underwear campaign, and (as far as I know) nobody in our household bought anything from the catalogue. At least we now have a funny anecdote to tell at family gatherings.

In short, don’t assume you know the appropriate title to use. So, ask yourself – are you referring to someone correctly?

 

Don’t Assume the Worst.

We all make assumptions. Yet, when people jump to conclusions, we often think they are malicious or ignorant – even if they actually mean no harm. This is why assumptions can be so destructive in professional relationships.

Even though someone may make an assumption based on stereotypes, they may not mean to discriminate or offend. When talking to the New York Times about gender bias, Professor Susan Fiske at Princeton says “It’s a mistake to assume that gender bias is only or mainly about misogynists. Much gender bias is more automatic, ambiguous and ambivalent than people assume.”

Yup, I’m also telling you to not make assumptions about the intentions of others who make assumptions. While you should avoid showing your biases, don’t assume the worst if your colleagues slip up. We would all get along much better if we consider that people usually mean well.

 

What Would a Glistener Do?

A Glistener (i.e. a great listener – hence our company name!) knows the danger of making assumptions in conversations. Of course, we all will make some assumptions anyway, but we should try our best not let them show. If you get it wrong, showing your assumptions can alienate your customers or colleagues.

Our individual coaching and group training courses teach how to avoid assumptions creeping into your speech using 5 Keys. Reflection is one of our 5 Keys, which is about the listener matching the body language, tone, and vocabulary of the speaker.

Reflecting vocabulary is actually a great tool for preventing assumptions from creeping into your conversation. When someone uses a word to describe something, try to use the same word to refer to that thing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you parrot back exactly what you hear. That would sound robotic or even pejorative. Instead, you should focus on reflecting their vocabulary when it comes to key words.

 

What are “Key” Words?

When deciding which key words to reflect, pay special attention to emotionally laden or culturally-dependent words. This is helpful in both personal and professional conversations.

Another story time! When I was fresh out of university, I once ruined a pitch at a for-profit school. The administration referred to the school’s “students” as “customers” (I know – right?!). Despite this, I naively assumed that it was more important to emphasise academic ideals, rather than financial incentives. For this reason, I stubbornly continued to use the word “students” and not “customers.” By doing that, I was showing my lack of experience in the for-profit sector – at least in the eyes of these school administrators. Because I didn’t reflect the right vocabulary, my professional relationship with the school was over before it started.

Consider the terminology used in your sector. Which terms vary according to industry or company culture? Make sure to reflect those key words to make better first impressions and build good rapport.

Reflect in Writing, Too.

Great listening is also important in written correspondences. You can use reflection as a tool in your writing, just like you would use it in a conversation. Check your letters and email replies to make sure you’re using appropriate vocabulary for key words.

For example, are you using the right title when addressing your recipient in an email? Unless your company policy says otherwise, it’s usually a good idea address the recipient in the same way that they signed off in their last email. This way, you avoid being too formal or overfamiliar.

What if you’re writing the first email to a new potential client? If you don’t know the rank of title to use, it’s safest to overshoot rather than undershoot. For example, use Prof rather than Dr when writing to academics. Nowadays, a quick Google search can usually help you get the right title. Failing this, you could simply use the recipient’s full name without a title until they tell you otherwise.

 

Conclusion

You will inevitably make assumptions, but try not to. Reflect instead. This will help you make a better impression and build a better rapport with anyone.

For more about Reflection and the rest of the 5 Keys, check out our individual coaching and group training courses. You can also get a free guide by subscribing to our Glistener mailing list.

 

 

Executive Summary

Everyone makes assumptions, even me and you. Unfortunately, making assumptions can cause serious offence, as it did when people assumed an Asian woman in a viral video was a nanny.

In business, you can give a very bad first impression with incorrect assumptions. For example, you might assume the wrong title of a new colleague or customer. In general, address people as they have introduced themselves, or as they have signed off in written correspondences. Sometimes a quick Google search can help you, too.

Assumptions can also emphasise a clash in company culture. Our training course teaches Glisteners (i.e. great listeners) to avoid assumptions, especially by careful use of language. One of our 5 Keys to Listening is Reflection, which means appropriately matching the body language, tone, and vocabulary of the speaker.

By reflecting the vocabulary of your conversational partner, especially for emotive and culturally-specific terms, you will avoid assumptions creeping into what you say. Consider what words in your sector vary according to industry or company culture. Make sure to reflect those key words in your professional conversations.

Reflection will help you avoid assumptions, making a better impression and building a better rapport with anyone. This is key to good customer service and any professional collaboration.

 

Administrative Note

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed I haven’t posted for a while. I’ve been a bit busy, and (to be honest) lacking inspiration for the blog. Instead of subjecting you to forced posts, I’m ditching the weekly schedule. I will now only be posting when I have something new that’s worthwhile writing about.

Make sure to follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our Glistener mailing list to be notified about new blog posts, and other exciting things.

 

 

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