Make Assumptions At Your Peril

It was in 2015 when I went with a small group of people for a trip to Namibia. We drove from the northeast through the Caprivi strip from Botswana through Etosha, visited the Himba tribe, and before heading south along the coastline to the Namib desert, we stopped at Twyfelfontein.

Twyfelfontein is a rock formation in the Kunene Region of north-western Namibia that boasts 6000 years old engravings. It is an arid area with a limited water supply and very few plant life and even fewer animals.

The sun was shining bright, the temperature rising to unpleasant levels when we got out of the car and walked towards the site. We’ve got a local guide to give us a history lesson and show us around to the most interesting places.

The more than 2500 engravings are believed to be done by the San tribe. This most significant collection of petroglyphs in Africa depicts various animals you would expect in the heart of this continent like lions, giraffes, ostriches, or elephants.

It all made sense, and even though it is an exciting piece of history, it wasn’t something entirely unexpected. That is until we saw a picture of a penguin and a sea lion engraved in one of the sandstones. There were penguins this deep in the continent? What about the hot weather?

And then you remember that it was 6000 years ago. Is it possible that the environment was colder than today? Is it possible that the ocean was close to the site we were standing on and over the thousands of years receded? The coast is 100 kilometers away today.

It was a mystery. How could the locals draw a picture of an animal that they had no chance of observing when walking around? We made all sorts of theories, and they were good ones.

Finally, we talked to the guide who, with a knowing smile, pointed out that the assumed creators of the site didn’t originate in the area but migrated from the west coast. There might not be penguins in the area, but the tribesmen brought the knowledge of these funny looking birds with them. The mystery was solved.

So how does this apply to your life?

If you pay attention, you may discover that there is a significant amount of confusion and misunderstandings you encounter every single day. Your feelings get hurt, you get angry, you yell at people, you look foolish, you make mistakes. People get into arguments only to realize that they are both arguing the same point, but from different perspectives, they agree, but can’t admit that they agree. The culprit is clear: assumptions.

Things may not be as they seem – we all see the world differently. When you think about it, there is, most of the time, no universal truth. As with beauty, the truth is in the eyes of the beholder. Especially when feelings get in the mix. You can see this in everyday life. Two people may stay in the queue in front of a counter, and while one gets angry about why it takes too long, the person standing just behind him may feel that the line is pretty short today. Two people may go for lunch together, get the same meal, and while one gobbles it up praising the chef, the other doesn’t like the taste and will complain about the chef. Objectively, it is the same meal, but each of us will have a different experience of eating it.

Cultural differences are the most obvious example – the most frequent source of significant misunderstandings is when you start interacting with people from different cultures. Our upbringing, culture, education, and language have a substantial impact on the way how we process information and see the world.

The language you use matters – the fact that people from different cultures are different is obvious. What may be less obvious is that even you personally may have different perspectives, say different things, and make different decisions based on what language you will use. A study from psychologists at the University of Chicago found that people using a foreign language take a less emotional approach to moral dilemmas. This applies even in situations where people are asked to sacrifice one life for others to survive. Your view of the world changes depending on which language you are just using.

This explains a lot. I travel quite a lot, and I lived in different countries. I always wondered why it is easier for me to express my feelings better in English than in Czech (my native language). The thing is, for me saying “I love you” in English has a lower emotional charge than saying the same words in Czech. It is much easier to say it. But it also doesn’t have such a deep meaning that it would have if I said it in my mother tongue.

Never make assumptions – most of the confusion and misunderstanding comes from the fact that we want to make our lives easier, so we make assumptions. We say things like, “it is common sense,” or “everyone knows that.” Yes, it is a common sense that there is snow in winter… unless you live on the equator. Yes, everyone knows that you should drive on the right side of the road… unless you live in the UK. The easiest way how to avoid unnecessary arguments is to stop making assumptions about what others know and want. Learn to ask and listen.

Always ask for clarification – asking for clarifications any time you get a feeling you may not understand the other party is the only way to get on the same page. If you find the words used or the body language in dissonance with what the message appears to be, then immediately ask for more details to ensure you truly got the right message.

That may be done well by voicing your understanding of what was said to double-check. “Just to make sure I understand this correctly,” or “Let me summarize it in my own words to make sure I understand what you want me to do,” are great ways to collect your thoughts and summarize your understanding of the situation.

If you are afraid that the other party may be unwilling to say that you are mistaken, you may end the summary with something like, “what other things we need to include?” Ask open-ended questions as much as possible. Asking simple, “Is that all?” or “Is that correct?” may get automatic “Yes.” even if it is not. Asking for more input makes it easier for the other party to add stuff without making you look bad.

Putting it all together

We live in a world of complex interactions with many people who are thinking differently from us. The only way to build strong relationships and to improve the way you communicate is to learn to listen, adapt, and try hard to see the world not only from your narrow perspective but also through the eyes of others. You may discover many different worlds out there, and in some of them, there are 6000 years old engravings of penguins in places you wouldn’t expect.


What are your thoughts on collaboration and communication, especially when different cultures are involved? Do you have some tips and tricks on how to make sure you don’t jump to conclusions and you don’t necessarily make big deal out of small mistakes?

Photo: ejaugsburg /

Categories: Communication, Leadership, Travel Stories

Tags: , ,

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