Positive Expectations

by Christopher Lovejoy on July 7, 2010 · 4 comments

For many, many thousands of years, human beings lived in tribes.

Expectations around survival figured prominently in their daily lives.

Especially expectations to behave, perform, improve, and succeed.

If you didn’t look, behave, respond, act, or react in certain ways, you were shunned, even exiled.

Consistency was prized because survival demanded skill in dealing with unpredictable pressures.

Survival for the tribe required that you behave in ways that best served the tribe, that you perform to the best of your ability, and that you improve your skills as best you could if or when that was necessary.

If you didn’t, you were chastised or punished, shunned or exiled.

These expectations endured for tens of thousands of years.

That’s a lot of conditioning.

Your inner compulsion to conform and perform goes way, way back.

Is it any wonder that many of our expectations today contain negative judgments that negate the presence or dignity of those to whom these judgments are directed?

It’s a legacy that seems outdated in a world that is more sophisticated in its psychology, that is thriving with ever more advanced forms of technology.

I think it’s time to wake up.

The Interactive Context

In my previous post, A Reasonable Expectation, I wondered how it might be possible to deal with expectations that contained negative judgments.

Before I address this possibility, I’d like to draw up some guidelines for holding or delivering expectations affirmatively, with confidence.

In the struggle for survival, human beings have no choice but to do what they can with what they have, and to make the most of what little they have. In the struggle for survival, their expectations revolve around getting what they need.

Expectations also arise in the course of striving for what we desire. If they contain positive judgments, then they usually carry the prospect of a reward, along with appreciation:

“I expect you to […], and if you do, I will […]. I can see that you have promise and your promise is worthy of my attention; you deserve an opportunity to prove yourself, and if you do, I will reward you with […] and show you my appreciation.”

We typically do not communicate expectations explicitly; we might only do this when our expectations are ignored, dismissed, evaded, challenged, opposed or, worse yet, violated. Rather, expectations tend to be implicit – embedded inside our communications if or when we interact with the world or others.

We also hold or deliver expectations in many different ways:

  • submissively or aggressively
  • permissively or authoritatively
  • receptively or assertively
  • meditatively or passionately

You might have noticed I arranged these pairs consistently. On the left side are ways we might hold our expectations; on the right side are ways we might deliver them.

I’m not so much concerned here with the style of communication as I am with the judgments that charge or set our everyday expectations.

An expectation that contains a positive judgment is affirmative because it affirms the presence or dignity of the person or group of persons to whom the judgment is directed; by contrast, an expectation that contains a negative judgment is punitive or manipulative because it negates the presence or dignity of the person or group of persons to whom the judgment is directed.

With all of this in mind, how might we hold or deliver our expectations affirmatively, with confidence?

I’d now like to explore the nature of a positive expectation, and in so doing, lay down some guidelines.

Scenarios of Service

An expectation is positive when it contains a judgment that affirms the presence or dignity of a person or group of persons with the prospect of a reward, along with appreciation.

Stewardship is a useful context to explore the nature of a positive expectation. The need for service is ubiquitous and will always, I believe, be timely in its essence.

Other avenues of approach might include relationships that involve, for example, family members, partners, friends or acquaintances, colleagues or peers, employers or employees, celebrities, authorities, superiors or subordinates.

Let’s start with a scenario of service where expectations are challenged or violated in the course of providing a service. This will serve as a point of contrast with which to frame a scenario where expectations are met in positive, affirmative ways.

First, the negative scenario:

Customer: (approaches a service provider respectfully) Excuse me (spoken in a pleasant tone at a respectful distance).

Service provider: (ignores customer for many long seconds before speaking) Yes? (spoken in a tone that suggests that this is not a good time to be requesting service; does not make eye contact).

Customer: (feels momentarily annoyed) I’m looking for a [fill in the blank] (maintains a polite tone).

Service provider: It’s two aisles over (spoken in a deadpan tone; does not make eye contact; returns to the task at hand).

I realize that not all customers are as respectful or as polite as this one; I also realize that there exist service providers who go out of their way to provide exceptional service.

Now let’s frame this scenario in positive, affirmative terms (I’ve inserted commentary in square brackets):

Customer: (approaches a service provider respectfully) Excuse me (spoken in a pleasant tone at a respectful distance).

[Here, the customer is setting the context for a positive interaction, knowing full well that what you put out is what you get back; there exists an expectation of adequate service, without prejudice]

Service provider: (pauses for a moment before speaking, then looks up, makes eye contact, and smiles) How can I help you? (spoken in a pleasant and sincere tone).

[The service provider acknowledges the presence of the customer and affirms the dignity of the customer; communicates, in the form of a question, the expectation that help can actually be given, with a positive judgment that the customer is ready, able, and willing to be helped]

Customer: (feeling visible and valued) I’m looking for a [fill in the blank] (spoken in a friendly tone).

[The customer shows confidence in the service provider’s readiness, ability, and willingness to provide help in finding an item; confirms the service provider’s expectation that help can actually be given]

Service provider: I can tell you where it is or I can show you (spoken in a firm but friendly tone).

[The service provider again affirms the dignity of the customer by giving the customer a choice about how to proceed with the interaction and by not presuming to know what is best for the customer]

Customer: Would you mind showing me? I might have some questions about what I’m buying.

[The customer conveys the choice respectfully and affirms the dignity of the service provider by giving a clear reason why the choice was made]

Service provider: I’d be happy to do that for you. Follow me, please.

[the service provider affirms the dignity of the customer by acknowledging the choice in positive terms; gives a directive in polite terms with the expectation that the customer will follow based on a positive judgment that the customer will be responsive to the directive]

This interaction is a perfect and complete scenario that I’ve personally seen and experienced myself in real life.

Does this mean I expect perfect and complete scenarios of service each and every time I enter an interaction where service is expected? No.

For many of us who live in modern societies, service that is perceived as good enough is usually adequate.

Which is not to say we don’t reward and appreciate exceptional service.

General Guidelines

From these scenarios of service, some general guidelines for holding and delivering expectations affirmatively, with confidence, can be laid out and be applied to situations that go beyond providing or receiving service.

(1) be prepared to set a context for positive interaction: give everyone a clean slate when meeting for the first time (no prejudices allowed), even if others have told you to do otherwise (they might be prejudiced); if you’ve known someone for any length of time, remember: they can and do change, even quickly, in which case, you might feel justified in providing another clean slate

(2) when someone speaks to you in a genuinely friendly way for the first time, acknowledge their presence at the very least, and if appropriate or desired, affirm their dignity with an appropriate or desired response

(3) in the course of any subsequent interaction, confirm expectations in a positive tone to keep the interaction moving forward in positive directions

(4) be mindful of uncertainty in how to proceed with the interaction; be careful not to presume to know what is best for someone you’ve just met (or even someone you’ve known); if an opportunity arises to present a choice to keep the interaction going in a positive direction, present it in a clear, firm, and friendly way

(5) when you’re presented with a choice, make yours clear and firm, giving a clear and simple reason for why you made it; people are more likely to proceed or comply if you provide a reason for your choice

(6) service is not servitude; when you give someone a directive, make sure that you have a context of positive interaction that can justify the directive; don’t presume to tell anyone what to do without such a context, and be courteous and polite when you issue the directive


The guidelines offered above can help you hold or deliver your expectations affirmatively, with confidence, for yourself and for others.

These guidelines can be applied beyond the need for service, to other situations where expectations are held or delivered with assurance.

These guidelines place you in a position to deal effectively with expectations that contain negative judgments.They also help you to appreciate why it’s important to respond effectively to expectations that contain positive judgments.

In this post, I covered expectations that we have of others. In future posts, I will also cover expectations that we have of ourselves.

In my next post, I will explore how to deal effectively with those who seek to impose their expectations; with expectations that contain negative judgments; and with interactions that invalidate your expectations.

In the meantime, what advice would you offer to someone looking to hold or deliver positive expectations?


Insight Hunter July 8, 2010 at 11:04 am

Behave/Perform/Improve/Succeed might be overstated — I don’t think there is as strong a societal emphasis in these four areas as you depict.

* Yes, you’re expected to behave, but if you act up, the ramifications are usually not that harsh. There are eccentrics and odd people throughout history, and most, if their behavior is not too extreme, are tolerated. More strict societies may be harder on these different characters.

* Yes, they’re expected to perform, but not everyone is expected to do so at an elite level. The early humans might have low expectations for that slower, fatter kid, and not expect him to help much in taking down that mammoth.

* They might not have expected improvement either. They probably expected a certain amount of competence, and left the person alone as long as they met that. Work is like that too. They don’t really expect you too improve too much.

* I would argue the same for success. It is valued in Western society, but not too an outrageous extent.

Media on Societal Expectations — That said, what one expects of one self is often warped by media, representing what society expects of you. Hollywood paints ideal romantic love. TV idealizes attractiveness and wealth. The media you consume creates a sense of what is normal, and if one doesn’t fit that, one might feel inferior and that they are behind in one area or another. This will likely cause hang-up, issues or baggage. In my view, this is where the real harm of expectations lay.

How does one overcome these negative societal expectations (issues)? — This question came to mind as I was reading the post. Some ideas would be to:

1. Reflect. Reflecting on why you are 40 and do not have, car, house, wife and kids is a good start. They might not have been your priority, or perhaps even lowly valued. Opportunities might have not come your way.

2. Accept. Learning to accept your current situation is also helpful. You might not be where you want to be, but no good will come from beating yourself up over that now.

3. Find out what you want. Find out what you really want and believe in it, and ignore the expectations of society that do not understand you. You might want to sail around the world while everyone else wants you get to a job. Stay away from the sources of those negative expectations: TV, media, certain friends, etc.

Be honest. Now one may be fooling oneself into what one wants and the societal expectation may be best for the person and the person does not know it. A male may still wish to lead a bachelor life and convince himself that it is best for him, but he might be simply afraid of commitment and responsibility.

4. Plan. If you make plans for the future and actively pursue things that will help that along, then you will feel better about shortcomings of the past. You are willing to change and are trying to improve.

Your guidelines on positive expectations sound very reasonable and make a lot of sense.

Christopher Lovejoy July 8, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Hi Insight, you raise some valid and interesting points.

Perhaps my emphasis on behave/perform/improve/succeed is a little overstated, but please note that I did qualify it with “in certain ways” and did so in relation to the quest for survival in a tribal context. For example, I suspect that if you behaved in an odd manner, you were thought to be possessed by demons. In a tribe, I think that everyone had their place. A weak male might not be skilled at taking down a wooly mammoth, but I imagine that he was expected to help out with caretaking or other less strenuous tasks. Having said this, your comment on improvement rings true; imperatives to improve might have been confined to peer pressure rather than tribal pressure. The same with success. But then again, I recall that rituals for boys to become men and girls to become women (i.e., to perform and succeed) could be quite strenuous, even torturous.

You make some good points about the effects that media can have on our expectations, both for ourselves and others. On the one hand, the media can give us idealized images of what is possible, but on the other hand, can raise expectations so high that many people are left feeling inadequate, unworthy, or miserable. Or else, compelled to give chase.

Your guidelines for negotiating societal expectations through the media seem sensible and sound. I copied and pasted them for future reference.

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