Brendon Towle Coaching

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Expectations, Part 1

In the recovery community, we talk about “expectations” a lot. These are those times when we believe that someone else (or something else — a company, an organization, society) should and therefore will do something. These can be relatively simple and benign (“I waved them ahead at the stop sign, therefore they should go ahead”) or complex and fraught with peril (“Everyone should see that being nicer to each other is the best thing to do”).

There’s a school of thought that says that expectations are merely premeditated resentments — that is, every time you have an expectation, you’re setting yourself up for future anger and/or disappointment and reliving the situation over and over. It is certainly the case that having lots of expectations that don’t get fulfilled can leave us disappointed, resentful, or bitter. But, it’s actually not possible to navigate the world without them, and so I think a more nuanced perspective is appropriate. Let me explain how.

In the 1970s, AI researcher Roger Schank proposed the idea of “scripts” as one of the ways in which we understand the world and how to navigate in it. The idea of a script is pretty intuitive. For example, we know that when we walk into a restaurant, a certain sequence of things will probably happen:

  1. The host or hostess will ask how many people in our party;
  2. Depending on how busy the restaurant is, we may have to wait for a bit;
  3. The host or hostess will show us to our table;
  4. The waitstaff will come over and ask if we want anything to drink;
  5. The waitstaff will return with our drinks and take our order;
  6. The food will arrive;
  7. After we eat, the waitstaff will bring the check;
  8. We will pay and leave.

There are, of course, variations on the theme (sometimes the waitstaff will combine steps 4 and 5, sometimes they will ask if we want dessert between steps 6 and 7, and so on), but the general flow of events (in a certain kind of restaurant) works like this.

These scripts are a set of expectations about what happens in a restaurant, and it turns out that it’s often not possible to successfully navigate a restaurant without them. Let me give you two examples of how:

  1. In Tokyo, the script is different from the American one in at least one important way — the waitstaff will not come over until you raise your hand and shout out “excuse me!” In America, this is either rude or an indication that something is wrong; in Tokyo, it’s just an indication that you’re ready to order. Also, in Tokyo, the waitstaff will rarely ask if you want anything to drink, and will not bring you water unprompted; you have to volunteer that information yourself.
  2. Recently, I was eating at a favorite restaurant of mine just down the street from my house. This restaurant operates cafeteria style (which is a different script); you get in line, place your order, wait right there in line until it’s given to you, pay, and go to your table to eat. I was sitting outside eating when a mother and daughter sat in the table across from me. After a couple of minutes, the mother said something like “I hope a waiter is going to come over soon.” I explained the restaurant’s system to them, they thanked me, and got in line to place their order.

In both cases, if you try to follow a script that doesn’t match the restaurant that you’re in, you’re going to leave hungry. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to restaurants. As just one other example, it’s not possible to drive in America without having a script (or set of scripts) about how people behave at traffic lights and stop signs, how pedestrians and bicyclists behave in the presence of cars, etc. We also have scripts about elevators, escalators, sidewalks, doors, shopping malls, parking lots, and much much more. All of these scripts are necessary to function in the world, people behave according to them most of the time, and we tend to get upset when they don’t.

In addition to navigating the world, though, we develop scripts about how people are supposed to behave in social situations. The kicker is that since all of us grew up in different environments, our scripts tend to be different. (One of the most profound things my sponsor said to me long ago was “If you’re going to write the script for other people, you need to give them a copy.”) I would often have very particular ideas about how my girlfriend was supposed to respond to a particular issue I had, for example, but I just expected her to know those without me telling her. In other words, I was expecting her to read my mind.

Based on the scripts I have about how social interactions are supposed to work, I have expectations about all kinds of things: how people will respond when I ask questions, when I hold the door open, when I tell them I love them, when I tell them my feelings are hurt, what my wife/friend/acquaintance is supposed to do in a wide variety of situations, how people are supposed to act in classes or meetings or elevators or shopping malls or gyms, and on and on and on. How these expectations affect my life depends on two major factors:

  1. Are these expectations reasonable?
  2. Whether or not they’re reasonable, what do I do when they aren’t met?

I’ll write about these questions next week.

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