Expectation is Disappointment’s better-looking accomplice. In the great nightclub of life, Expectation buys you a drink and fills your head with grand ideas while behind your back Disappointment is just itching to lift your wallet.
You may expect, for example, your partner to really get you. You might expect your job to be a chocolate fountain of bliss. And those wrinkles at the corners of your eyes—well, unless you’re Chris Pine or George Clooney, Expectation is already splitting the loot with Disappointment and they’re having a good old laugh at your expense.
Even seasoned, expectation-wary punters like me can get sucked in. I expected a ride down the coast to a boys’ weekend from my mate Floyd. He, however, wanted space in his new car, and conjured up excuse after excuse about my messiness as reason to ditch me. I ended up resenting him; he counter-resented. Floyd and I could have saved ourselves a tranche of text messages if only I’d not expected a ride from a friend so neat he arranges his remote controls alphabetically.
Even seasoned, expectation-wary punters like me can get sucked in.
But expectations are bigger than me and Floyd. Society expects things from us. No matter your sexual orientation, skin colour, or where you come from (I’m a Middle-Eastern/European straight white guy), just being male carries with it certain expectations. What are they? I used to know, way back when I wore a school uniform: always open the door for a female, be good at sport, break up a fight, give up your train seat to a lady … these things were as ingrained in me as my mother tongue, but nowadays it’s confusing.
Yesterday on the 64 tram I was about to offer my seat to a young woman but I froze, worried she might see it not as a demonstration of good manners, but an act of male hegemony, or a come-on, or old-fashioned or … who knows what. Stand or sit, the argument circled around in my head so that by the time I finally stood it was dark outside and she was probably home curled up in front of the tellie.
And what is expected of us appearance-wise? Metrosexual? Or did that go out with three-quarter length pants and socks with sandals? Hipster maybe. But what if you don’t have the facial hair? Ironically nerdy, perhaps? Could be a tattoo or a man bun is the look we’re meant to be strutting. A dizzying array of male fashion in men’s magazines confuses me, until, that is, I get distracted by the cool watches and the promises of protein powders.
Bill-boards scream that I’m supposed to go longer and harder. Longer and harder than what? Or who?
And have you seen the men’s shelf at the chemist lately? Used to be it was a place for shaving cream and prophylactics but now it’s choked with skin lotions, haircare products and smelly sprays. And talking of pharmaceuticals, bill-boards scream that I’m supposed to go longer and harder. Longer and harder than what? Or who?
In relationships are we expected to be soft and gooey on the inside, bursting into tears at Kleenex ads, and rippling like RoboCop on the outside, all muscle and angles, lean from a 5/2 diet and 24-hour gym membership? Good with kids, animals, in-laws, neighbours, a technical whiz around the house, DIY handyman, breadwinner, cake-baker, homemaker, auto-mechanic, David Attenborough nature expert, and Bruce McAvaney sports genius? I’m dizzy from all the possibilities. But are those expectations my partner’s or mine?
We expect things of ourselves, and maybe those are the worst. We expect to be happy yet paradoxically we are not. In pursuit of happiness, modern man is more stressed, depressed and undressed than his parents, but not happier. The older generation were content without really trying. They didn’t expect happiness. At least mine didn’t. They had safety, family and a job. Ask them, and my parents would say they’re happy (or ‘Argh, again with the fakukta questions, eat your soup’). Happiness wasn’t on their mind every minute of every day like a bad Eurovision lyric. On our bookshelf there weren’t self-help manuals, and Oprah was a decade away; yet Mum and Dad seemed … satisfied. I’m not saying we should emulate all our parents’ values (far from it), but they did seem to have an enviable contentedness, which I reckon is in part because they didn’t expect it as a given. (By the way, I’m a huge Oprah fan.)
I work towards it, I deserve it, I expect it, therefore I’m disappointed by its absence.
Working towards happiness seems a good idea, but then the expectation that I should feel happier makes me glum because I blame myself for not trying hard enough. The media, an expectation goldmine, can take a lot of the blame, too. Glossy magazines parade successful men capped with full, thick heads of hair (the subliminal message being follicles equal potency) and yet every morning the mirror confronts me with a receding hairline the shape of Tasmania. The TV tells me my friends are driving better cars, living in bigger houses and talking on slimmer phones, so why not me? I work towards it, I deserve it, I expect it, therefore I’m disappointed by its absence. And don’t get me started on social media—everyone I know is eating/travelling/partying/dressing better than me.
Passing expectations onto kids is a specialty in my culture. When I was thirteen an uncle questioned me about what I was going to do with my life. ‘Medicine or Law?’ he asked. Things haven’t changed. Now when I call my mum her first question is why didn’t I ring earlier—the expectation that I should have called before I did creates an Escher time-puzzle I can never win. I’m guilty, too: I expect my kids to clean their rooms and every morning is Groundhog Day. I’m on the brink of nationalising their piggy banks but they, like any well-trained revolutionaries, have hidden their assets in the mess.
How are we expected to cope with all this? What is the grand unifying solution to the bio-psycho-social jigsaw of male expectations? I’m still waiting to hear it. But in the meantime I reckon we could all do with checking out our expectations; kicking their tyres, turning over their engines. Are they realistic? Have they been helpful? Talking through them is good, too. Chatting with friends and partners about expectations may turn up something interesting. Unless you’re a mind reader you won’t know what they expect of you. Pre-emptive conversation also lessens the chances of the dreaded we-need-to-talk discussion.
So I’m off to a boys weekend where I expect to laugh myself to sleep and wake up to a mess my kids would be proud of. Where poker chips will be buried in burger patties, arm wrestles will end in swollen joints and Floyd’s car will be getting its very own space about a half hour’s walk away (while he’s sleeping and expecting me not to spot his car keys).