“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.”

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog in 2010.

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Have you ever been on an “I’m not sure if this is a” date?

We are probably usually far more sure than we say we are. But we deny we are sure so if we learn one of us doesn’t want to date the other, it doesn’t sting.

Imagine you’re a college kid. You show up first, slip into Starbucks, and slink into a big, black velvet chair. You (usually pretend to) read (who can focus at a time like this?). You try not to look at the door. And you think.

Do I buy my drink?

Do I wait to let him pay?

Does he want to pay?

Is this a date?

If only he’d been explicit.

“Can I take you out on Friday?” instead of “Want to grab coffee on Friday?” Is that so hard?

He shows up. You smile. He’s nervous.

So it is a date.

You walk to the counter. You ask for tea. He asks for coffee.

“Together, or separate?”

He looks at you.

Brother, this ball was made for your court. But he has assumed the choice is yours. Shoot! You panic.

“Separate!” you say. Did you really have any other viable option? If you had said “together,” he’d think you think you’re on a date. And that’s the last thing you want him to think you’re thinking if you don’t know whether he’s thinking it, too.

You both pull out your wallets. So it’s not a date. He smiles. Did he smile because he’s relieved? Is he offended and the smile was fake? You assume he’s happy to be out with a friend.

You assume.

And “assumptions are the termites of relationships.” (Henry Winkler)

But it doesn’t just happen among college kids on awkward first dates. This is at work and at church and in grad school. It’s in public places and on the road and at parties. It’s in marriages and families and circles of friends.

Imagine a world where we could be bolder.

Where we could communicate when we once were too afraid to do it.

To ask what someone’s intentions are (instead of guessing). To share our true feelings (instead of stifling them). To reject ambiguity (instead of using it as a preemptive defense against rejection). To explicitly identify our needs (instead of waiting for the people who can meet them to read our minds).

We assume and we act on that (which is code for “we do what presents the smallest risk.”).

But our avoidance of risk is what makes taking risks unbearable.

Our caution in effort to avoid the sting of rejection enables us not to try.

Perhaps we are too cautious.

Perhaps what we fear only stings so much because we’ve been too cautious for too long.