Letter to the Editor: Assumptions

With thanks to Professor Zimny for starting us thinking about “unacknowledged assumptions,” I’d like to share a personal experience that demonstrated the real-life importance and pertinence of what one might have considered an esoteric, philosophical concept.

For critical and analytical thinking, we are often prompted to verify definitions and how terminology is being used before trying to understand what is being communicated. For example, U.S. sports fans becoming aware that much of the world uses the word “football” for what we think of as “soccer” is a relatively recent consciousness raising. People defined “football” differently, but most of the U.S. was unaware of the two definitions of the word. Consequently, we were not even aware that we were making an assumption; we simply knew what “football” means.

Yes, hearing people refer to “U.S. football” would have been a clue; however, Sherlock Holmes frequently dazzled readers with his “deductions” because few had developed the habit of detecting unacknowledged assumptions. He recognized supposition, differentiating “what everybody knows” from facts.

So, returning to identifying unacknowledged assumptions as key in life as well as essays: What had I — and perhaps more importantly, other people — assumed without even realizing that assumptions were made?

I volunteered to fly a “Black Sapphire” orchid plant from the Bay Area to Orange County for my aunt’s 100th birthday present. Although I’d seen live plants and bouquets on planes, I’d never seen a flowering orchid and wanted to verify that carrying it with me would work. I said that I planned to bring a rolling case to go in the overhead bins, that the gift’s double spikes were nearly in full flower, and that I planned to use shrink wrap to help protect leaves and blooms. I was assured that “it’s no problem,” that people do indeed carry plants frequently, and that my safety precautions probably wouldn’t even be needed.

The unacknowledged assumption that my aunt would welcome presents was not unfortunate.

I was awakened to be asked if I was keeping the plant on my lap. Was I aware that all personal items must be stored under the seat ahead of us for takeoff and landing?

Until that moment, I had not occurred to me to imagine that an orchid plant could be “OK” if folded in half and then crushed to fit under a seat. Perhaps the unacknowledged assumption related to believing that airline representatives would know in-flight storage rules. Well, a belief is not necessarily a fact. Perhaps they had, somehow, only seen miniature orchids and so believed they would emerge undamaged from beneath a seat? Even if a fact, it was not relevant.

We’re already moving toward the takeoff runway; it’s too late to give the plant to someone at the airport.

Being helpful, a different crewmember suggested stowing the plant in space “in the back.” As I’m thanking her for the offer, I pause. She, too, has been listening to why I thought it OK to carry the orchid but maybe I should ask a couple questions. One unacknowledged assumption: she’s referring to an upright rather than overhead storage. Wrong – but she insists it’ll be OK. Rather than ask why she thinks that, I address the unacknowledged assumption that the orchid will be OK because it won’t be damaged by other, shifting, carryon luggage. Wrong.

Good news: I was able to apply what we had practiced in class (eventually) to keep from agreeing to store the plant where it would’ve been being mangled in storage. Better news: I had a jacket that functioned as support and adjacent passengers who shared space and worked with me to maneuver the plant through amazing angles and juggling to stow it sideways without delaying takeoff.

If you thought that was funny, try getting a definition of what a “liquid” is. Oh by the way no, I don’t know if the plant actually made it to my aunt’s house. Maybe I don’t want to know.