No One Thinks Like You Do

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We live in our heads.

As an undergraduate studying intellectual history, my mentor, Professor Nancy Struever, once chided me for my perspective in a paper: I’d come at the subject from the vantage point of someone in the 20th century. People in the 16th century, she reminded me, didn’t think like we do.

Each time I encounter someone making the same mistake, I remember Struever’s comment, made as we walked out of the Gilman Hall classroom at Johns Hopkins toward her office a few feet away. (The university has since remodeled the building—the one in which I spent 90 percent of my class time—into something beautiful, but unrecognizable. The heartbreak!)

Count with me the instances of people assuming others think just as they do:

  • Salespeople sell the way they buy. (A frustration I’ve written about in the past.)

  • People assume other folks know their expectations, which leads to disappointment when they don't get what they want.

  • Employees take an action or approach they believe will impress me or a client, instead causing increased work and frustration.

  • People figure someone knows the point or desired outcome of a meeting or gesture. This poses especial problems when someone shifts intentions and believes another person will simply intuit the new direction. (Remember the story of the couple on a “date,” recounted in this post?)

  • Folks firm in the rightness of their political, religious, or bigoted beliefs assume everyone they like must share their stances, which prompts them to brazenly launch pronouncements that make others uncomfortable.


Assume no one thinks like you do. Further, expect that no one can even intuit how you think, unless you’ve known them for a long while as close confidants. (And even then, why risk a misunderstanding?)

Approaching all interaction from a standpoint of complete foreignness will come far closer to reality:

  • Ask what people need and expect.

  • Explain your needs and expectations.

  • Clarify your intentions.

  • Consider statements’ effects—especially on people who may not share your beliefs.

Because everyone—not just you—lives in her own head. As likely as not, she believes you think just as she does.

The only way to achieve understanding? Clear communication.

Stop the mutual mystification, people.