Has anyone ever looked at you and pronounced these memorable words: I thought everyone knew that. The phrase seems to define presumption and implies naïveté or worse. But don’t we think it all the time? Perspective, context, and cultural background all color how we each view the world – and how the world sees us. It can also mean we go on mental autopilot without even knowing it. Here are three small examples of when I’ve moved on mental auto-pilot without thinking.
Are Numbers and Dates Universal? It Depends.
Translate this date: 12-7-1917. You see, I knew Henry Zguda’s identity documents listed his date of birth as 12-7-1917. So for our fourth interview on December 6, I showed up with a small birthday balloon and cake to surprise him. Was he surprised? You bet. Without thinking I saw “December 7.” His birthday is July 12. Think Day-Month-Year, European style.
Now translate this date: 26-V-1945. This date was hand-written on one of his war letters. I had to visit Poland to find my clue. When I saw an ad for the Polish release of Dan Brown’s new book Inferno, the light turned on. Look for the words “Premiera 9 X 2013″ in the photo. Translation: “Premieres on October 9, 2013.” Henry had substituted the Roman numeral “V” as a shorthand for May, the fifth month. It was still Day-Month-Year, but different.
Does the Week Begin on Monday or Sunday? It Depends. Look closely.
I learned a valuable lesson about European calendars when I visited Warsaw. I never knew that European calendars start the week on Monday. They look like American calendars, but you have to watch the numbers closely. Who knew? I missed a concert because I never looked at the dates carefully, instead counting the days by the visual columns.
Isn’t all of Arizona in one time zone? It Depends.
Many years ago, I worked for a state agency and scheduled a training session in northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation. I arranged it for 1 p.m. and made the four-hour drive in the morning, arriving at 12:30 p.m. in time to set up. I was stunned to walk into a roomful of thirty, impatient people waiting for me, and a clock on the wall that read 1:30 p.m. Why? I didn’t know until that moment that the Navajo Nation practices daylight savings time, which the rest of the Arizona does not. Half the year it is in a different time zone. Embarrassed? You bet. When I got back to the office and mentioned my huge faux pas, my co-worker told me “I thought everyone knew that.”
No, Everyone Does Not Know That
These are three minor examples of how two people from different places can look at the same thing, and clearly see two different answers. In both Poland and the Navajo Nation, I was the foreigner. I needed to learn their ways, not the other way around. I was forty years old before I set foot outside of the U.S. and I truly understand that for many people traveling far is a luxury they may never afford. However I think we all need to be foreigners at some point in our lives, so we learn to adjust the lens through which we interpret the world, and remember that many times, No, I don’t know that.