Whenever meeting a new person here in the US, there is almost a template for the initial exchange of words that follows. It usually goes something like this:
Them: “I hear you have an accent…where are you from?”
Me: “I’m from Sweden, in Europe.”
Them: “Oh, how special!”
[And here a number of follow-up responses can come, from a compassionate look in their eyes expressing something like “You must be glad you got out!” (where I assume they are thinking about communsim or socialism or something else horrific in their world), to enthusiastic words like “I’ve always wanted to go there!” or even “Why on earth would you wanna leave…to come here??” and so on – all responses in their different ways leading up to the next question:]
Them: “What brought you here?”
I almost always just answer with one word like that, to start with.
Them: “Oh, that’s wonderful! What does your husband do?”
An oh so common question, this. “What does your husband do?”. And it’s of course telling us a couple of things:
First, it shows us how important one’s [husband’s] profession is – here in the US especially, and in other places too, surely. This “what does he do” could of course have meant “what is his passion, what makes him happy, what makes his heart sing?”. But it doesn’t. It simply means, “how does he make a living?” (and while this may seem obvious to everyone, and therefore not even worth a note…that itself is worth a note, in my book).
Second, it shows one of many assumptions we all make, all the time. In this example, they perceive me as being a woman (and indeed, that’s how I identify too), and therefore, they assume that the love I refer to has been found in a man (which indeed, many times in my life has been true, as well).
There is of course nothing wrong with that question, necessarily – if by “wrong” we mean something on the way towards “evil” or “meaning harm”. The times when people assume that Anna – my partner – is a man, it’s a pretty easy thing for me to just correct the little mistake in my reply (or not – a couple of times I have skipped that part and just played along with the “husband”-assumption, for different reasons. But that’s a whole other story*). No big deal, right?
However, the times when people instead ask, “Oh, what does your partner do?” or “Oh, what do they do?” have taught me how big of an impact the details can make. By this change of words, they show that they are aware of the multiple alternatives out there, and by the “they” instead of “he”, my love life becomes less of the focus in the continued conversation. Because the moment I correct a person who called Anna a he, our relationship immediately gets the attention – want it or not. At this point the other person either starts expressing excuses for their assumption, or just turns to looking perplex or surprised or whatnot (most of the times these are overall “positive” responses, I should add, but that is not the point here). There is a multiple of outcomes in these situations – and all of them involves a sort of emotional labor that could so easily have been avoided, I’ve learned along the way.
I am so grateful for everyone I’ve met, who have asked the non-assuming question to me, so that I have learned to feel the difference on the receiving end on things (and of course, I’m equally grateful for being in a relationship that lets me have this experience now so I can learn and do better myself). I wonder how many times I’ve been the one asking about the other person’s “husband”, both literally and figuratively speaking – as in when assuming an able-bodied-looking person is in fact so, or when assuming a person presenting as a man to me is actually a man, or that anybody in a certain setting would have enough money to do x or y and so on.
I am sure the blind spots are…many. And by no means do I mean that we should all beat ourselves up for the things we have never thought about in the first place and where we therefore have possibly acted…less than gracefully in our meetings with other people. Of course we are used to simplifying what we see; to categorize things around us to free up space in our brains. But we can always choose to go outside of these simplifications and just be…nicer people, to those around us. Awareness is a start and we can all do our best in finding better ways to be and act, and talk.
Imagine what difference a tiny word can make. And imagine all the times we have the chance to be the person who opens up that freer space for other people.
Feel free to add your own examples of assumptions which you would love for everyone to leave behind in the comments, so we can all learn and do better!
* An example of a situation where I have let people believe that Anna is my “husband”, for anyone fluent in Swedish 🙂