Breaking Expectations

Whenever we interact with the world, we use cognitive shortcuts. It’s handy, you know. We make assumptions about our environment so that, if we’ve guessed right, we can respond appropriately to our environment more quickly as it changes. It’s a survival technique.

However, it can sometimes get us into trouble, especially socially. We see someone dressed a certain way or giving some other kind of social cue and we assume other things about them. Most of the time, this works brilliantly; they’re sending those cues on purpose and we’re supposed to interpret them the way that we do. Or they’re not sending those cues on purpose, but they’re identifying with a group and so our reaction is still appropriate.

I have a hard time, sometimes, in social situations. I have had to learn, via careful and intentional observation and memorization, many social conventions that it seems others picked up earlier, easier or more instinctively. So I’m somewhat sensitive, now, to the social cues that others send. Which is to say that I’m more consciously aware of the ones I notice, not that I notice all the little ones; the fact that I have to consciously process them slows me down and I miss many cues because of it.

I struggled, for a long time, with the fact that others often acted as if I understood some cue I’d missed (a reasonable assumption on their part, statistically speaking). And I realized that I was sending as many “normal” social cues as I could in order to fit in (my younger self was less comfortable being a huge nerd than my present self). But this meant that people were under the impression that I conformed to their expectations… I was basically lying to them.

So I set about trying to find some things I could do that would indicate to someone that they’d be best served (assuming their goal was to communicate effectively with me) being fully mentally engaged, rather than on auto-pilot. When i first had this idea, I also had the idea that I was special and different and so more deserving of people’s full attention. I’ve since become a bit more humble in that regard.

I don’t want to get into a whole ton of detail about my personal expectation breaking journey. I want to come to my point, which is this: I wanted to break people’s expectations so that they’d have a “What?” moment and hopefully clue in that something new or uncommon was going on. Instinctively, I knew I shouldn’t go too far off, but it’s not something I realized until recently.

Whether it’s yourself or a product or brand, I think people often want to break expectations. And I feel like people hand out that advice a lot. It’s decent advice, too. However, it’s one thing to wear funny socks or something and another to dress in a gorilla suit every day. Funny socks are different enough that people will look at you oddly, but still feel like they can have a conversation with you. A gorilla suit is so radical that many people will assume they can’t cope to the difference, whether they’re right or wrong.

The analogy that popped into my head when I initially thought of this was a window. If you want people to see you (assuming you’re transparent, like, you know, a window), then you might think that cracks would help. I certainly notice a window with a crack more than one without. But if you apply too much force, you’ll shatter the glass and there will be gaps in the window and jaggey bits that people are afraid to some too near, etc. It’s a much more upsetting experience. I guess my advice on the topic (for those that want it) is this: Break expectations if you like, but apply light pressure so you don’t shatter them.