I have a friend who loves food but, for one reason or another, seems to hate every place that serves it. In fact, the last time I went out to eat with this person, I told myself this is the last time I put myself through the torture.
We chose a new spot that was getting great reviews and was something everyone could agree on trying. We were all excited to try it and have fun catching up. Unfortunately, the mood changed when my friend started to sulk as we looked over the menu, which was full of regional specialties, handmade pasta, and highly coveted cuts. As the waitress approached, my friend looked up and said with a sullen look, “I just want a hamburger and french fries.”
Somehow, the amazing kitchen staff figured out how to produce this off-the-menu request out of thin air, and a tantrum was narrowly averted.
I’ve been thinking about this experience a lot lately.
In their mind, “restaurant” is defined as “a place that serves me what I want, like a hamburger and fries.” If you look at many 1-star reviews for books, music, and restaurants, this is exactly what you’ll find. A mismatch of expectations. A mismatch that is blamed entirely on the person who created the work instead of the critic.
It doesn’t matter that the thing was clearly marked. It doesn’t matter that the thing was extraordinarily well-produced. And it doesn’t matter if just about everyone else experiencing it was thoroughly delighted.
Because for this spoiled, under-informed and impatient patron, it failed.
This failure comes from a few contributing factors, all amplified by our culture:
First, you can’t know if you’ll enjoy an experience until you actually experience it. All you have is your basic understanding of what is being offered. Since there is so much noise, we rarely take the time and actually read the “label,” or we just don’t care enough to pay attention until we’re already involved.[And many marketers are contributing to this, are at least complicit because in the face of too much noise, they hype whatever is being offered and overpromise]
Second, many people are afraid. They’re afraid of anything that is new and usually, the thing they fear more than that is change. In today’s culture, most people would like to be entertained, not transformed. They want to be lectured and given things on a silver platter instead of learning.
Third, we created a double-edged sword when we gave everyone a microphone. This means we’ve amplified the voices of dissent while simultaneously giving people a chance to speak up about their desires. Mass culture is far more divisive than ever before, and it also means that interest bubbles are more likely to be served.
And so the fork in the road:
You have to make a decision. You can turn your operation into a cross between McDonald’s and Disney, selling the regular kind, pandering to the middle, putting everything in precisely the category they hoped for and challenging no expectations…
Or you can do the arduous work of transgressing expectations, challenging genres and seeking out the rare people that want to experience something which matters, instead of something that’s basic and safe.