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What Happens When We Assume: A Social Media Case Study

Retro woman on her phone

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” ~Isaac Asimov

They say that when you know better, you do better, but that’s not always the case.

We all know of the dangers of assuming, yet still we fall into the assumption trap, often, which leads to unnecessary suffering. I know, because, I’m so guilty of this. Despite knowing better—having written articles on the topic!—I made an error in judgment. I made an “ass of ‘u’ and ‘me.’ ”

Here’s what happened:

I recently uploaded a photo to Instagram of myself sitting on a cushion in the Shrine Room of the NYC Shambhala Center. I added a wonderful Alan Watts quote as the caption:

“Meditation is the way in which we come to feel our basic inseparability from the whole universe, and what that requires is that we shut up.

Quality post, right? Well, not everybody agreed. An hour after I posted this, a girl named Natalie, with whom I went to college, commented, “But who took the picture??”

I was so caught off guard. My mind came up with different stories as to what she could have meant—all of them negative.

Is she calling me out for having a staged picture? Is she bashing the fact that I’m meditating? Is she mocking me, saying I look self righteous or holier than thou?

Embarrassed and defensive, I deleted the comment. Then I started worrying: Were other people thinking the same thing? I deleted the picture entirely.

I felt bummed out, but on the other hand, I had to laugh. She may have been rude, but she was right. I was creating the illusion that I was having a moment of solitary meditation practice, yet obviously it was staged.

I clearly was trying to project a specific image of myself. I wanted other people to see that I was meditating. How far would my eyes have rolled if somebody had posted a picture themselves praying in church?

But then I got to wondering: Why are people’s expressions of spirituality judged more harshly than more crude forms of expression, like flaunting of wealth or over indulgence in alcohol?

Why is a photo of something like this more criticized than a picture of somebody holding a yoga pose on top of a mountain? Both activities are cut from the same cloth, yet yoga is more socially accepted, trendy even. (Though the “mindfulness revolution” has recently infiltrated the mainstream, too.)

I get why it’s obnoxious to post a picture like the one I did, but is it more obnoxious than any other form of carefully planned self-expression?

Each of us is curating an image of ourselves on this platform. We’ve all formed ideas about who we are in our heads, and we use social media to convey those shaped identities to others. With regards to what we decide to broadcast, I say, to each their own.

I decided to upload the photo with an explanation of what happened. I summarized the points I made above, and added a few reasons:

  1. It’s my Instagram, and that is reason enough.
  1. I think it’s a cool picture, with the colors and the lighting and the symmetry and symbolism.
  1. I want my Instagram to be a collage of all different aspects of my life, not just hanging out with friends or travel pictures. My meditation practice is worth sharing as much (or as little) as anything else.

And then came the fun part (for my ego): I called her out.

I debated if I should use her real name, or tag her, or leave it anonymous. Ultimately, I went with the former. It wasn’t the high ground, but in that moment, I didn’t care. She attacked me publicly, so I would reciprocate by throwing some subtle shade her way, too:

“To answer your question, Natalie, a wonderful, bright eleven-year-old girl named Zoey, who I was watching while her mom was teaching a class, took the picture. She’s learning photography in school and took about fifty shots from different angles, because she wanted to.”

I ended by adding, “Life is short. Let’s love and laugh and let the little things go and allow everyone to express themselves and be themselves in whatever fashion they choose.”

I was unsure if I would look petty or defensive or over explanatory, but the response I got was overwhelmingly positive. Comments, texts, and private messages came through congratulating me, defending me… and asking who Natalie was (LOL).

The feedback felt great. What can I say? We millennials LOVE validation!

Yet, I was curious how the girl in question would react. Would she clap back at me in the comments section? Would she block me? Would she even notice?

I got my answer shortly after in the form of a long message on Facebook:

Hey! I saw your new post and wanted to say I’m so sorry my comment came off as rude. I was just being cheeky and thought you’d pick up on my humor and find it funny. There was no judgment at all toward you, and it wasn’t my intention to publicly shame you.  

In retrospect, I totally realize that it was an unfair assumption to make that you’d find my comment funny, since we haven’t talked since freshman year. I can see how a comment like that can catch anyone off guard.

Sometimes I get the illusion I know people better than I actually do because of social media and our mutual friends. I was scrolling through Instagram and had the moment of “Yeah, I know Stephen, and he would totally find that funny.”

I honestly didn’t put much other thought into it. So it’s totally my bad—I’ve always been more on the blunt side of things, and am still working on it. I appreciate you calling me on my sh*t, I just wish you confronted me more directly about it.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts and reflection. I think when people can be raw like that is really admirable. Hope life after school is treating you well!

I was shocked. It was absolutely not what I was expecting.

Here I was criticizing somebody for negatively misinterpreting my intentions, when in fact, I was negatively misinterpreting her intentions. I felt bad, and embarrassed. Though simultaneously I was delighted, tickled at the irony and wit of the universe.

It’s not uncommon for a comedy of errors to arise from these vague forms of virtual communicating. Even more so than in direct dialogue, the interpretations we make are direct projections.

In my case, it highlighted an insecurity of mine, which is looking hypocritical or inauthentic. Clearly, Natalie was trying to be sassy and poke fun; but I viewed it, as the saying goes, not as it was but as I was.

Natalie was not without fault in this scenario. She was poking fun, yet she did not acknowledge the consequences, or how I might feel. It was a split second decision, an immediate reaction to this kind of post. I can’t blame her, because my response to her response was cut from the same mistaken cloth of assumption.

We can all do a better job of slowing down and creating space between situations and our reactions to them. We can take a moment to breathe and check in with our higher selves before pressing send.

Especially in such a politically heated moment in time, we should stop to ask ourselves, “Is commenting my dissenting opinion on a pro-guns Facebook status, and engaging in a debate that will lead nowhere, really worth it?”

Conscious dialogue is always valuable. Snipey remarks and clap back rebuttals rarely are, unless, as in this case, they can serve to teach and assist in our growth.

I wrote back to Natalie, accepting her apology and offering one of my own. We ended up cyber laughing about the incident.

We shared a sense of humility and gratitude, noting the bizarre circumstances under which we received an opportunity to reconnect and grow, having learned a lesson in respectful communication and the dire consequences of assumptions.

Profile photo of Stephen Wickhem

About Stephen Wickhem

Stephen Wickhem is a writer and life coach currently living in New York City. His motto is simple: “Live fully in the Now, while consciously creating your future.” More of his personal and inspirational essays can be found on StephenWickhem.com.

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About Anas Alaoui

Anas Alaoui

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