The Assumptions We (Don’t Actually) Share

What Is Normal?

I won’t truck out a formal definition of “normal” because we all know what it means, right?

“I need some paper.”
“What kind?”
“Just plain paper. The regular kind.”
“Okay, here you go.”
“No, I mean normal paper. No lines or holes on the side. It’s for my printer.”
“Oh, that kind of ‘normal’ paper. Here’s some printer paper.”
“Thank you.”

This customer got frustrated. If he’d wanted paper with holes and lines, he’d have asked for binder paper. If he’d wanted grid squares on it, he’d have asked for graph paper. But he didn’t want any of those variations. He just wanted normal paper.

The clerk also got frustrated. The customer assumed that of the many different types of paper available, one kind was default and didn’t need a label. He also thought everyone else had the exact same assumptions. But the clerk had to ask “What kind?” because to her, normal paper doesn’t mean printer paper any more than normal ice cream means vanilla.

The customer might claim that printer paper is normal because it’s the most common. First off, the clerk sees kindergarten teachers buying construction paper, and artists buying big sketchbooks, so there’s no agreement on what’s most common. Secondly, normal doesn’t mean the most prevalent instance anyway. If it did, we would all think that “a normal person” means someone living in China.

But there are uses for normal that aren’t controversial, right?

“A bunch of carrots, please.”
“Here you go.”
“Wait, some of these are…I don’t know. I want carrots.”
“These are all carrots.”
“Some of them are yellow. This one’s purple.”
“You want only orange carrots? Okay, take these.”
“Not this one; it’s crooked and forked. I just want normal carrots, okay?”

Like before, this customer uses normal to mean most common, but this is only the case in his personal experience, not everyone’s. And unlike before, he’s also using the word normal to mean ideal. In his opinion, straight orange carrots are preferred, and what carrots ought to be. Anything else isn’t normal. He’s within his rights to want only straight orange carrots, but by assuming them to be normal and the only acceptable kind, he’s framing his assumptions as objective truth and dictating these terms to others.

Are there any assumptions about what’s normal that we do agree on? For example, the human genome includes eyes, and most people can see, so isn’t it okay to say that seeing is normal?

Even this is slippery. A significant number of people can see more acutely than 20/20. So why is 20/20 called “normal” vision? Since it’s not the strongest occurring acuity, is it because most people have 20/20 vision? Even if this were true, it still doesn’t constitute normal. If it did, then everyone would agree that normal people with normal vision means “people in China who don’t need glasses.”

Okay, but people whose legs are paralyzed, clearly their legs don’t work as designed. That’s not normal, right? Except there’s a different word for that: disabled. Imagine a world where an infection paralyzed the legs of everyone on the planet. Then we would say everyone was disabled; because they have legs which don’t function as intended. But it wouldn’t make sense to say no one in the world was normal. While the concept of normal can’t be reduced to refer to the majority of cases, it’s also meaningless if it applies to rare cases only.

Is normal a useful concept at all? Can it be employed without judging or marginalizing inappropriately? It can work if the reference is explicit. If my brother puts ketchup on his salad, I can say that’s not something I normally see. But if he keeps it up, that will change. Alternatively, my body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit when I’m not ill, but my mother’s was typically 99.1 degrees. So when my temperature went up to 99.1, we could say that wasn’t normal for me, but we couldn’t say the same for her.

More problematic is how normal has connotations of being good or desirable. If something is typical, it’s something generally encountered, and if it’s atypical, it’s rare. Neither one is positioned as good or bad. But abnormal implies undesirable or lesser. If I tell people my vision is abnormal, they ask what’s wrong with it, and when I tell them it’s more acute than 20/20, they usually say, “That’s not abnormal…it’s better than normal!”

So the concept of normal can be useful if everyone agrees on the criteria, but these can’t be assumed, and it’s uncommon for everyone to share the same assumptions. Arguments about too much political correctness try to frame the issue as being about people having thin skin, being too easily offended, or not respecting all views; but complaints about political correctness often come from people who just don’t like hearing that others don’t share their assumptions, or that their assumptions are harmful.

Yet it’s important to acknowledge that while necessary, questioning assumptions is hard. It takes thought, effort, and we need to help each other by providing context and encouragement, not just bashing offenders. To be constructive, but also because of how difficult it can be to identify what assumptions we’ve made, and all the ways they affect others.

For instance, in the above example of buying paper, there was another assumption which didn’t come up because both people assumed the same thing. If they hadn’t, the exchange would have had even more conflict. What was this unspoken assumption?

That printer paper, the normal kind anyway, is white.


I wrote this post for the #YAtakeover 2.0 digital festival on the weekend of August 19-21, 2016 organized by The YA Fictionados. I was on a panel discussing “What Is Normal?” with authors Siobhan Curham and  Louise Gornall, hosted by Zarina.

Opinion Essay, YATakeover

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