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Great expectations

Right, let's see some hands here. How many of you have automatically said 'yes' when you've been asked to do something you don't really want to do?

A fair number, pretty much as I had expected. No, keep your hands up.

So, you who are sitting there waving, another question. Keep your hand up if this applies to you.

Have you ever asked something from someone and expected a 'yes', and then been disappointed or surprised when you've received a 'no'?

Okay, so that's almost everybody. No, keep the hand up.

Now, if you've still got your hand up, repeat after me. "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you..."

Okay, you can take your hands down. It's nothing to be ashamed of. I didn't call you hypocrites. I, too, had my hand up all the time.

"You give a hand."
"You don't say no."
"You don't make people disappointed."

That's probably the most common wall.

Of course, you don't want to make people disappointed.
- No? Why not?
Because... because then they might not like you?
- No? So they wouldn't like you if you had a bit of respect for yourself and took responsibility for your own life and your choices?
Now you're being obtuse. It's not about that, but about helping each other. Give and take. The whole society is built on that.
- Oh? So you give a hand, even though you don't want to, so that you can get a hold on people and demand something in return?
There's no talking to you when you're that cynical. That's the way it is, that's all. You don't want to be someone who lets people down.
- Ah. There's the wall. The absolute truth. That's the way it is. Don't question it.

Why is that, then? Why should you do things you don't want to do? Why do you expect that other people should do it?

Here's a word you don't see as often now as you used to: duty.

Around this point, the debate tends to get derailed. Those who object to the idea of duties are accused of being amoral and sociopathic egoists, and they in turn call their opponents slaves who've willingly put on their schackles.

And great fun is had by all...

That's the good thing of a monologue like this. I can just ignore that and plod on.

So, what is 'duties'? Obligations. Responsibilities. Expectations.

There are two kinds - explicit and implicit - and the first is straightforward and honest. "Do this or get a beating."

Fair enough. It's honest. Not nice, but honest. I can make an informed choice, with as much deliberation as I consider necessary. If I accept that I'm responsible for my actions and choices, it follows I'm also prepared to accept their consequences. That's not amoral or sociopathic, but the opposite, the most basic moral foundation.

There are no musts, only a choice of consequences. That is, if you know the options and consequences. You might not.

Obligations. Responsibilities. Expectations. But unsaid. Supposed but unspoken. Taken for granted.

An awful lot of human communication doesn't really exist. You fill in the details yourself. You think a person means this ot that. You interpret, extrapolate, take for granted.

If you live in a relationship you will after a while, when the first fascination of this exciting person has died down, get comfortable in it. You believe that the other person can read your mind to some extent. It's well known, and I would expect most people have been caught out by it. You say something ambiguous and are surprised when it's taken the wrong way.

"But surely you realise I didn't mean it that way!" is one of the more common exclamations in a row.

Why surely?

You express yourself ambiguously and in an imprecise manner, both because it takes less effort and because you expect that your intended meaning will be understood.

More often than not you'd be right, and it would be rather tedious to have to explain everything in every little detail to avoid misunderstandings. And it would be terribly boring to have to listen to it.

"Yes, I know what you mean. Get to the point!"

If you feel like it, you can put your hand up if you've used that line, or the "surely you realise" one.

This was a little parenthesis, but it can serve to illustrate what expectations do for (and to) us. The point is that you carry a lot of them around. Things you never really think about, but which are, in effect, demands on other people.

Like them doing their bit, giving a hand.

A duty is an expectation.

Have you ever been asked about them? Has an acquaintance ever said "I am assuming that you are interested in my problems, relatives, hobbies and prejudices. Do you mind?"

All these unstated expectations, all these obligations never accepted, all these demands!

That's the way it is.

Isn't it?

Well, these expectations are not absolute but cultural. Both in macrocultures - Western society with a Christian value foundation , for instance - and microcultures - in the team at work, or at the club, or in the class - and everything in between.

As a little exercise you can try to enumerate all the expectations you carry around with you. I promise you won't find even half of them.

But it's the same for everyone, so that's okay.

Well... Some of us aren't entirely comfortable with some of the expectations people have put on us. You wish you could say no, could refuse the responsibility to live up to the expectations. That you could say "No, I don't want to" without being asked for a reason.

Of course, you can, sometimes. When it's a question rather than a request.

"Can you help me move next weekend?" is open. "You'll help me move next weekend, right?" is closed, a statement of what will be rather than a question.

And because you are aware of the expectations, despite not having condoned them, you don't just say "No", but invent an excuse. "No, I'm sorry, but I'll have to... erm... wash the dog then."

Sure. You know this already. Everybody does that at times. But why? Well, we know what'll happen without an excuse: Radio drama.

- No.
- Why not?
- I don't want to.
- Huh? Why don't you want to?
- I just don't.
- But you've got to know why!
- Perhaps, but I shouldn't have to explain myself to you.
- Well, excuse me for asking then, mister stroppy. Why are you so grumpy, anyway?
- I wasn't grumpy, but I'm getting there.

Seen that before? It's to avoid that conversation you either give in, or scramble for a reason, an excuse explaining why you can't even though you pretend you want to.

But why do I have to explain myself to you? Conversely, what right do I have to question your decisions?

Because that's what these unsaid duties are about. Free will goes out of the window, you're not permitted to decide. You shall do what is expected of you.

You've hit the wall again. Maybe it's covered by a thin veneer, an explanation that doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. Underneath it, you see the wall. "Because that's the way it is."

That's what people say. What they mean is "Because that's what I expect."

And we've come back to where we started. You don't want to disappoint people.

All right, if you promise something, without pressure and of your own free will, and you can't keep the promise, then you've let somebody down. You have failed to fulfill an expectation you've created yourself.

Hopefully, you take responsibility for the expectations you give people and do your best to fulfill them. If you fail to, you take responsibility for that and tell the people expecting something of you that you can't deliver, apologise and explain. You accept the consequences of your actions. Maybe it wasn't your fault that you failed - that's okay. But you still accept responsibility for the promise.

That's the only morally defensible choice. Of course, very few people have accepted fully that they're solely responsible for their lives - I haven't, but that's where I'm trying to get - so for most people the sense of responsibility is somewhat patchy.

Anyway, that's simple enough. You make a choice and accept responsibility for it.

But how can you be held responsible for a choice you've never made? How can you break a promise you've never given. People expect. They assume. They take the promise for granted, without asking.

Well, that's up to them. It doesn't bind me in any way. How could it? What right do they have to decide what choices I shall make?

In an abstract sense, it's a very simple question. They have no such right. You have not responsibility for a promise you've never given.

There. Done.

But in reality, it's never that simple. Because you are aware of expectations people have, and if you don't protest, you condone them, right? That's the way society works. Give and take. You've got to trust people to do their part. And so on.

Yeah, well... Shall we take a look at the anatomy of disappointment?

How does it feel, being disappointed? Does it feel differently if somebody breaks a freely given and clearly stated promise, or an expectation you've had, a promise you've taken for granted?

Have you ever been so disappointed that your whole existance trembles? If it's a basic expectation, something that functions as an anchor, being disappointed can be very traumatic - something you thought was true turns out to be false.

And who hasn't, at some point, felt that kind of deep disappointment? If you've got even a smigdeon of empathy, you realise how it feels, and try to avoid hurting someone else that much.

That's interesting, from a moral point of view. In essence, it's emotional blackmail. "Do as I want, or I'll be hurt and sad and it'll be your fault!"

Well, strictly speaking it's actually your fault, since you're the one who has pinned so much on these expectations. But since I'm a wet hen I give in to the blackmail and try to placate you. Which makes me feel a lot worse, both because I'm doing something I don't want to do and because I have thereby accepted the responsibility I wanted to refuse. And since I have been forced to accept it, I know I'm likely to disappoint you later, anyway.

Another part of the disappointment is the damage to the self-esteem.

"Why not? It's me, isn't it? It's because it's me that's asking. If anybody else had asked, you'd have said yes, I promise. It's just because it's me, because I'm so fat, ugly, thin, old, young, poor, skinny and cross-eyed you say no. I'm worthless. I'll never ask anything of you again. I'll..."

Okay, okay, I get it. Even from the people who can say all that with their eyes only.

It's the same thing. Emotional blackmail.

But what did we say earlier? "You don't want to disappoint people."

Well, well. That's where the logical and moral fallacy lies.

"I want to say no, but then I'll make someone disappointed."

I'll make.

So, you accept that it's all your responsibility, then?

You don't make anyone disappointed. Not unless you've already accepted the responsibility. If you've given a promise, without pressure, sure, you're responsible. But you're not responsible for the expectations other people have.

You don't make anyone disappointed. People make themselves disappointed, by nurturing expectations that won't get fulfilled. Is it your fault when people don't win on the lottery?

People are trying to give you responsibility, in order to avoid having to accept it for themselves and their own life. But you can only be responsible for yourself.

There are a couple of things you can do to help to manage expectations, though.

If you notice somebody has expectations you don't feel comfortable with, you've got to say so.

If you notice you expect things of others, you've got to say so, ask if they can accept it.

It's not always easy to say no, or accept a no. It takes respect, for yourself and others. But if you have that, it will become easier to accept that you are the only one who can be responsible for your choices, and to accept the choices other people make.


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