People surprise you a lot less when you don’t have expectations. Expectations of what strangers will be like in accordance with their clothing. Expectations of how your sibling will react to a question. Expectations of what your friends are willing to do for you. We’re conditioned to expect certain behavior, responses, and opinions based on prior experience. But what if we didn’t predict anything about another person? I like to think we’d all just get along.
I’m not simply talking about stereotyping, though that may be interwoven in some circumstances. For example, I recently met someone with 28 tattoos, including a full sleeve down his right arm. Most people I interact with don’t have many or any tattoos, and the general consensus (not blanketing everyone) from my upper-middle class, preppy social community is that excessive tattoos suggest recklessness and an unprofessional attitude (at least in the 9-5 world). I don’t think I’ve ever thought one way or another about tattoos, but I will admit that I was a bit surprised to find that my heavily tatted friend is a very successful project manager at a software company who graduated in the top 10 of his high school class before heading to one of the most well-known universities in the country. If he were tat-free and wearing khakis, something tells me I would not have been surprised at all. Even for someone like me, who prides herself on avoiding stereotyping, culture and upbringing influence our expectations. Like I said, I never gave much thought to how I feel about tattoos, but my twinge of surprise reveals my conditioned beliefs about someone who has 28 of them. [See that tiny butterfly on my right hip in the picture ? Yeah…that’s the only tattoo I’ve ever had.]
As previously noted, however, not all of our expectations arise from stereotypes. This may be the case for encounters with strangers, but what about expectations of people we already know? My brother and I had a very long conversation two nights ago that addressed this very subject. He and I are closer than many siblings and spend a lot of time together, but have momentary relapses of arguing in a way that should no longer be an issue now that we’re young adults, free of teenage hormones and angst. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t yell and fight; we just get under each other’s skin without even trying. Deciding to sit down and get to the bottom of our differences was a bit nerve-wracking…maybe there’s no solution? Maybe we just don’t naturally get along? I’m so glad we decided to figure it out, though, because the solution ended up being really simple (once we finally got there..): We need to stop expecting negative behavior and malintentions (<–that’s not actually a word) from each other. We are not the same, selfish kids who wanted to kill each other in high school.
I came to the conclusion that I grew up feeling like he was “perfect” in everyone else’s eyes, so when I’d try and tell someone that he was mean to me (which he most definitely was at times), they’d brush it off like I must have been hallucinating. Thus, I’ve spent the past 10 years not trusting that anything he said or did was sincere…he’s just the smooth-talking golden child. He came to the conclusion that he began avoiding me while growing up since I’d get super defensive and angry if he tried to confront me about something…anything (I’m not denying it. I was a typical female teenager). Thus, he’s spent the past 10 years walking on eggshells. Monday night, we came to the realization that we were still projecting the teenage versions of each other onto the now mature twenty-something versions of each other. People change…even your siblings. In order to develop a healthy adult relationship, we have to stop placing value on outdated expectations.
Maybe we need to reconsider the saying “I love when people surprise me.” If people don’t surprise us, it means that we’re finally getting a grasp on two crucial concepts: 1) You can’t make assumptions about people based on appearance, second hand stories, or anything else, for that matter. You just have to talk to them. 2) People are constantly developing, so you can never know someone too well. Your expectations of them are not reliable. [I almost put an “always” before reliable, but if something is not always reliable, then it’s simply not reliable at all.]