Use Hanlon's razor to assume the best

A razor (not the kind you use to shave hair from your skin) is a simple rule that helps us make good decisions. Hanlon’s razor is: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

This means, if something bad happens, don’t assume the person responsible is evil or angry, because they might just be stupid! It can be quite funny. In fact, it’s written by Robert J. Hanlon who submitted it to a book of jokes in 1980.

But the principle goes back much further than that. People have been saying similar things for centuries. In the words of my mother: Don't assume the worst

Actually, the razor doesn't limit us to just malice or stupidity. We have a lot more options to choose from. After all, real malice is pretty rare, and not all mistakes result from stupidity.

Let’s think about why mistakes happen. What if the person simply misunderstood what we wanted? Or they are not a native speaker? Or they didn't get enough sleep the night before? Or just hadn't seen an important email yet? There are many reasons for mistakes.

At work

Imagine this situation:

A: I can't believe you didn't tell me the meeting had been postponed! You've got to keep up with things—I looked like an idiot walking in on another meeting!
B: Don't yell at me! I didn't find out myself until just before the meeting started. I tried calling you, but you must have already left your desk.
A: Oh. OK. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions.

Person A assumed that B made the choice not to tell him about the cancellation. In fact, B did try but wasn't able to do it. Hanlon’s razor would have been useful in this situation; the conversation could have been more like this:

A: Hey, what happened with that cancellation!? I walked into another meeting.
B: Oh no! I just found out a couple minutes ago. I tried to call you, but you must have already left your desk.
A: I wish they'd tell us these things sooner. I could have kept working.

In speaking tests

Hanlon's razor can also be used when we think about topics that come up in speaking tests like the G.B.C. Let's say, for instance, the topic of healthcare comes up.

What do you think about healthcare in your country?

Well, I think it's pretty good. Sick people can get medicine for a reasonable price and everyone has access to both doctors and specialists. If I compare it to, for instance, the United States, it's really good! Over in the U.S., a lot of people end up bankrupt from getting treatment. I don't think there's any malice in those policies, you know. Just apply Hanlon's razor. It could be that some people don't know what's best!

So, remember the words of my mother (who'd never heard of Hanlon's razor): Don't assume the worst. If you stop and look for other causes, you'll probably find them.

philosophical razor [noun phrase]—a rule of thumb to help eliminate unlikely explanations.
jump to conclusions [idiomatic phrase]—assume
malice [noun]—with the intent to hurt someone.