JAY TALKING

I'm assuming this column is funny

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

The Internet has drilled us in the art of assuming things about people we don't know

I don't know about you, but I've never really understood the saying "Don't assume, it makes an ass out of u and me".

I mean, sure, I think I can spot a clever attempt at wordplay somewhere in there but it doesn't really make any sense. All the letters are there, but the word assume does not technically make an "ass out of u and me". It adds an ass to u and me, but I don't see how that would make for good advice.

To me, it would make more sense if the saying went: "Don't assume, as that is going to put u between me and an ass."

My other problem with the assumption advice is that it is too broad-based. It tars all assumptions with the same brush when that shouldn't be the case. It's almost as if anyone spewing the phrase is making unfair assumptions about the sort of assumptions people are making.

I can think of a lot of scenarios - algebra, for instance - where assumptions are actually really useful things.

Assumptions save us a lot of unnecessary time and effort.

For instance, I just assumed two sentences ago that you remember some of your secondary school algebra and therefore would understand my little attempted joke about the importance of assumptions.

If I didn't make that assumption, I would have had to go to the trouble of thinking of a different joke for that line because I cannot remember enough of my secondary school algebra to explain to you why that joke makes sense. And since I do not remember my algebra, I had to make assumptions about that too.

Specifically, I had to assume that algebra involves assumptions otherwise even if I correctly assumed you remembered your algebra, the assumption joke still wouldn't make sense.

I assume you follow my argument. And that isn't even all of it. Assumptions can also save lives.

Let's say you see a guy carrying a chainsaw wearing a hockey mask walking menacingly towards you in a dark alley. In such a situation, there is not enough time to conduct a more thorough investigation as to the motives of the chainsaw-wielding person.

One just has to assume he is a chainsaw murderer and proceed to get as far away as possible from the masked man. It's a case of assume first, run, ask questions later.

Now I say all this not strictly to defend the act of assumptions. I am merely pointing out that assumptions are neutral tools. It is up to us whether we want to use them for good or bad.

Unfortunately, most of us these days are using it for bad. And, as with most things that have gone wrong these days, I blame the Internet for it.

One of the more epic cases of assumptions used badly came last week when a blogger decided to name and shame a whole bunch of people he assumed had been cheating in the Standard Chartered Marathon.

What was sort of amazing to me was how complete his accusation was. He didn't just assume they cheated, he even managed to provide the reason for dozens of people cheating.

The only information he had was that a group of runners appeared to have taken a massive shortcut on the track and from there, he was able to figure out everything else himself.

I quote verbatim what he wrote: "And again I like to think that the weather was too hot for them and they decided not to continue on but turned back. But they should then do the right thing and not cross the finish-line, but in all cases they did, which leaves me with only one conclusion - they just want the finisher tee, medal and the bragging rights that come along with it and not interested at all in completing the distance!"

That's a lot to say about a whole bunch of people you know absolutely nothing about. I must admit that I am completely unfamiliar with the world of running across the island only to end up taking a cab home, but I found it strange that this many people would have gone to the trouble of joining a marathon they never intended to finish.

How did this one blogger figure all of them out?

Then it hit me: This is what all of us do on the Internet all the time. We are all incredibly well-drilled in the art of assuming things about people we don't know.

More often than not, our interactions on the Internet provide us a very small glimpse of a person - a brief Facebook update, a comment under an article or 140 characters on Twitter.

This is normally not enough to make any sort of informed judgment about anyone, but since that is all we have to go on, we fill in the blanks with our assumptions and prejudices.

And we do this hundreds of times a day. It's become a reflex.

Worse still is the fact that no one ever fills in the blanks with nice things. Someone reads a moderately racist tweet online and he quickly decides the person on the other end is a full-blown racist on par with Hitler.

We need to be mindful of the assumptions we make about people. The exact same statement that made you think someone is the biggest jerk in the world would probably sound like a joke coming out of the mouth of a friend you have known for years.

I mean, there are a huge number of things I say on a daily basis that, if you heard it out of context, would make you want to punch me in the face. I'm not saying you would be wrong in my particular case - a lot of people who have known me for a long long time often tell me they feel like punching me in the face - but you don't know it for a fact.

You were just guessing and in so doing, putting yourself between me and an ass.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg