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Random Thursday: An Questionable Phrase

Thursday, July 6, 2017 - 08:00

There is an expression—a phrase, an image, a verbal trope—that I am trying to eliminate from my critical writing: “Does not disappoint.” When I think about it, I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to identify it as something I wanted to stop using, because I’d already examined a different model of the underlying issue from another angle and identified what it was that would eventually start bothering me about “does not disappoint.”

Here’s the thing. If I’m talking about a property (a book a movie, a meal, a performance) and describe an expectation I have for it, and then—having consumed the property—I observe that it “does not disappoint,” it seems to me that I’ve rejected the possibility of being surprised by joy. I’ve set the standard of my base-level neutral experience and determined that the property hasn’t fallen below that base level. It’s as if I’ve set up a job performance rating scale with only two options: “disappoints” and “does not disappoint”. Or, that if the rating scale includes “exceeds expectations,” I’m indicating that the experience didn’t exceed them.

And I don’t think that’s what I ever intended to convey when I used the expression. I don’t honestly believe that it’s what anyone else ever intends to convey when they use the expression. And yet, having seen it from that angle, it’s very difficult not to feel the gut-punch of, “So is that all I managed? I succeeded in not disappointing you?”

And here’s why I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to come to this point. Once upon a time, there was a couple in my social circle whom I’d had a chance to observe over an extended relationship arc. I listened to how Partner A talked about their expectations and interactions with Partner B, and it seemed to me that Partner A was operating on “disappoints/does not disappoint” performance rating. That—based on how their interactions were framed—the most that Partner B could hope to achieve was “does not disappoint.” It struck me as tragic. I felt strongly enough about it at the time that I spoke to Person A about my perception, no doubt being marked down as an obnoxious busybody as a result. And A and B are still together more than a decade later, so perhaps my perception was out of line. I don’t know.

But that’s why I’ve been trying to eliminate that phrase, in any of its forms. Because I want everything I consume to be allowed the possibility of surprising me with joy, not just failing to disappoint me.

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