I am a big fan of the television series Fawlty Towers. The series is set in a small hotel in England. The hotel’s owner, Basil, is played by John Cleese. Basil is self-centered, he cannot read the mindset of others, and is prone to outburst of anger that are hilarious because they are so absurd. Manuel is the waiter in the restaurant of the hotel and helps with the chores that need to be done. As we are reminded frequently, “he is from Barcelona” and he speaks hardly any English. The misunderstandings and confusion that result fuel Basil’s angry outbursts.

Recently I was traveling in a Spanish speaking country. We stayed at a charming hotel where a nice breakfast was being served by Juan. My skills in speaking Spanish are next to non-existent, and there were numerous misunderstandings between Juan and me. I joked to my wife that the name of the server was Manuel, and for a day or so I compared him with the waiter in Fawlty Towers. And then it dawned on me that because of my joking comparison with Manuel, I viewed Juan as well-meaning, but clumsy and not very competent.

Fortunately, the lightbulb came on, and I took the trouble to see Juan in a more nuanced way. He was extremely caring, replacing any item that was running low, rearranging the breakfast items, placing signs of explanation on the buffet, and being attentive to the needs of guest in a charming way. He was not the clown at all that Manuel portrays in Fawlty Towers! And it also dawned on me that I was visiting a Spanish speaking country without speaking Spanish. Of course there were misunderstandings, but they were due to my poor communication skills. Wasn’t the onus on me to learn at least some rudimentary Spanish before I went abroad?

This episode was an example of how we can miss truly seeing somebody else because we project a prejudice on them. In doing so, we tend to perceive characteristics that agree with our prejudice, and we may have a blind spot for who the person really is. A particularly pernicious prejudice is that we think we know the intentions of somebody. But how can we really know the intentions of somebody else when our own intentions are sometimes hard to fathom?

I encourage you to pause and reflect what fixed ideas and prejudices affect your perception of people around you. And if you can identify such prejudices to ask yourself the question if your prejudices are accurate. Or even better, you could pause, suspend any prejudice you may have, and make an effort to truly see and listen to the other person without making any assumptions about their behavior and intentions. Remember that we don’t know what we don’t know, and filling that void with our assumptions or prejudice may interfere with having a healthy interaction. After all, you don’t want to be like Basil and create barriers that need not exist!

Roel Snieder

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