27 June 2019

Learning to challenge your own assumptions is a valuable skill

We are all products of our upbringing and the environment that we grow up in. The media we are exposed to, the books we read and the curriculum we learn all colour our perceptions of the world. Bryan Susman of Facing History and Ourselves gave Laidlaw Scholars at Columbia University insight into why future leaders may want to consider unpacking their assumptions.

Each of us have been socialised to form incomplete pictures or ‘single stories’ of others and they of us. Beyond our control is the way that our culture shapes us. What’s in our control is the ability to recognise that when we work in a multicultural team or do research or business in a different cultural context we need to be mindful of the ways our the contexts in which we were raised might be informing our actions.

Interrogate your assumptions

Leaders are often prone to speak before they listen. In order to effectively lead, and effectively conduct research about cultures and contexts you may not necessarily familiar with or proximate to, you have to first consider the ways your background and experience may influence your perceptions of the context you are entering. You need to recognise that you are unlikely to have all the information you need.

Since students are going to be conducting research in new cultural contexts, Bryan wanted to help them understand the ways their perceptions and assumptions might be necessarily limited. To do so, he invoked the Hijab debate in France as an example. Based on your own background and the way you come to this debate what are your initial impressions of the situation? Would you likely support the headscarf ban or not? How would you render judgement?

  • What questions do you have that might make you more informed of the situation?
  • What histories/contexts might you need to know more about?
  • Whose stories might you need to hear to be informed about your perceptions?
  • What experiences/assumptions/judgements are you carrying with you that might colour your perceptions?


As an outsider, you are not responsible for knowing the background to every cultural context but you are responsible for doing some groundwork before you go. Historically, the ways that powerful people have tried tackling problems is to propose solutions, not spend time asking the people having the problems how they would solve their own problems. Interrogate the assumptions you have been brought up to harbour, and make sure that you’re centering the voices of those you are studying rather than your own voice.

How modes of communication differ

Not only do students have an incomplete understanding of the context in which they will enter, but they will have to navigate the ways their cultures might be different from those they are entering. What single stories might people within other cultures and contexts have of you? For example what single stories do people harbor about students from American universities and how might students enter new contexts in ways that show deference to the cultures they are entering? For example, the American method of communication tends to be direct. That difference in communication styles can make some feel people uncomfortable. How might you show a level of cultural humility so those you’re working with don’t feel you’re not imposing your modes of communication on a situation in a cultural context that is not your own.

Stay mindful

Be aware that there are frameworks of thought other than the one you were socialised and grew up in. Unpack your own biases and try to understand the ways your identities shape the thoughts, beliefs and interactions you have with others. Be mindful of the ways that your assumptions may be incomplete and humble yourself before you render judgement.


Bryan Susman M. Ed
Program Associate, Facing History and Ourselves

Winner of the 2019 Lippman Kanfer Prize in Applied Jewish Wisdom


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