I love sparkling
water, but the first time I tried it, it disgusted me.
I remember it
vividly. I was in third grade, and we were learning about caves in science
class. We were learning about how dripping mineral water forms stalactites and
stalagmites. My teacher, Miss Swenson, brought in sparkling mineral water and
poured it in little paper cups for each of the students to drink, so that we
could learn what the mineral water in caves tastes like. I can't confirm or
deny that the water in caves is anything like sparkling mineral water. This is
just what happened in my third-grade class.
There was a small
amount of bubbling water in a tiny paper cup sitting on my desk. It looked just
like Sprite, something I had tasted many times and loved. When Miss Swenson
gave us permission, I lifted the cup to my lips and drank.
recoiled. It tasted nothing like Sprite! It wasn't sweet at all. It was just…
just… Well, I didn't like it, and that was that.
Many years later, I
had a very different experience with sparkling water. I met a cool guy who
owned an Italian café. He was into bikes and coffee and he liked to drink San
Pellegrino mineral water. A number of our mutual friends got into drinking San
Pellegrino as a sort of status symbol. You know, we don't like regular water,
we like San Pellegrino.
Under these new
circumstances, I had the opportunity to try sparkling water again, and this
time I discovered that I liked it quite a bit. One of the reasons I liked it
was that after a long run in the desert, my mouth would be dry and sticky, and
I found that sparkling water had a better way of cutting through that
stickiness than tap water did. Soon I became a lifelong drinker of sparkling
water, although these days I drink the generic brands and save a lot of money!
My purpose in
writing this is to highlight how expectations impact the quality of an
experience. If your expectation of sparkling water is that it will taste like
Sprite, you'll probably hate sparkling water when you taste it. If your
expectation is that it's cool and tastes delicious, then you might find you
rather enjoy it.
This concept extends
well beyond sparkling water. I've noticed, for instance, that when people spend
too much time listening to just one kind of music, they quickly lose patience
with any music style that diverges from their preferred genre. I've noticed
that people who expect other cars in traffic to drive in roughly the same
manner they themselves do are often the ones who get most frustrated when they
encounter unexpected traffic patterns. I've noticed that people who come to
expect a certain kind of cityscape in their neighborhood often get the most
flustered when a large community of immigrants moves in.
In some of these
instances, there is some taste or difference in perspective involved. In many
of them, however, most of the dissatisfaction comes from the fact that
expectation and reality diverges. People don't like it when they expect one
thing and see another. People instead prefer consistency. When they don't get
it, they can get quite angry, and this anger translates itself into things like
anger at music genres, road rage, and racism.
I hasten to add that
this is not a complete explanation of
all human dissatisfaction. But it is an important aspect of human nature, and
you may benefit from occasionally analyzing your anger through that lens. Are
you frustrated with something that is genuinely dissatisfactory, or are you
merely trying to map the present set of circumstances onto an ill-fitting set
Indeed, I think a
lot of interpersonal disagreement can be attributed to the difference between
expectation and reality. Many couples break up under the reasoning that one of
them "changed" or that they "grew apart," and both of these
descriptions reflect a set of unmet expectations. Many arguments have been had
between people who absolutely do not disagree on the issue, but who instead
phrase the concepts a little differently: "I vehemently disagree with the
way you reached the same conclusion I reached!"
With a little
concentration, we can approach every situation and every conversation as though
there are no preconceived expectations for other people. You might be black,
but black doesn't have to "mean
something" or imply anything about our interaction. I can simply listen to
what you have to say and respond to it on its merits. You might be a
rock-climber, but rock-climber doesn't
have to "mean something" or imply anything about our interaction.
You might be saying something that sounds
similar to something I heard before, but that doesn't have to mean that
you are saying something I have heard
before. It's incumbent upon me to pay attention to exactly what you say, how it
differs from what I've heard in the past, and to approach it from the context
of our current discussion, rather than from the context of an old discussion I
had long ago, with someone else.
I don't claim that
any of this is easy, by the way.