What Do You Expect?

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.

Instantly, I 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 of expectations?

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.

More challengingly: 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.

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