On Mismatched Expectations

I am a firm believer in the importance of expectations. Take a simple example. Let's say you're a parent, and you are driving your child to get blood drawn for the first time. The child senses that something is going to happen but is not sure what. He asks, "Mommy/Daddy, what's 'getting blood drawn?'"

I see three courses of action here:
  1. Downplay it: "Oh, it's nothing! It'll feel like a little pinch."
  2. Exaggerate it: "It's going to feel like you left your arm on a hot stove for several minutes."
  3. Level with the child: "It will sting a little and will feel a little strange for about a minute, but you'll be OK."
Now, I would bet that it's about an even split between parents who choose Option A and Option C, with a small minority of sadists and humourists selecting Option B. As someone who believes firmly in establishing expectations, I would skew towards C.

Why? Well, it's mainly a process of elimination choice. If I go with A, and my child is particularly sensitive to pain (something that is hard to gauge when dealing with someone else's nerve endings), the child will be (rightfully) annoyed with me for misleading them. If I go with B, the child will likely panic for the remainder of the drive; their relief when the blood is actually drawn (if the blood ever gets drawn) will be nice, but likely small satisfaction. A prolonged reliance on B-like strategies will also presumably cause psychological traumatization (from here).

B, on the other hand, offers fair expectations to the child. They will be nervous, and I may be forced to offer additional reassurance, but they now know what to expect.

People act on expectations all the time. If they expect that new flat screen TV to drop in price for the holidays, they may postpone their purchase for another month. If they expect to get a raise, they may start spending a bit more money in advance. If they expect to have to skip lunch, they may eat a larger breakfast, or may pack a Nutri-Grain bar for the road.

Like most things, weddings are about expectations. Everyone who heard that Katherine and I got engaged had some expectations about what the wedding will actually look like. Likewise, everyone who gets an invitation will, for at least a moment or two, create a picture--or, rather, a mental model--of how the wedding will look.

(This is another one of those principles for me. Back when I was in an educational psychology class, we talked a bit about mental models in learning. One of the jobs of a teacher is to help students draw accurate, understandable mental models of reality; the mental model of the solar system for a third grader will inevitably be less sophisticated than the mental model for an astronomer, but both models need to depict the abstract concept in a concrete way in order to be effective. I see the wedding the same way.)

Mismatched expectations lead to conflict, fights, divorce, miscommunication, wars, and all manners of other problems. Take weddings. If John likes to drink, and assumes that weddings will have alcohol, but sees no alcohol when he arrives, John will be angry. If, however, John has been informed in advance of the dryness of the wedding, John will adjust his expectations accordingly (or wisely send a small gift and skip the affair altogether).

I anticipate that the most controversial aspect of the wedding will be the choice of food. We have made two potentially-unpopular decisions:
  1. We will not be serving a full meal; the menu calls for a variety of hors d'oeuvres and other light fare.
  2. We will not be serving a traditional wedding cake, having decided that pies are better, and more interesting, than cake.
Thus, going forward, we have two places for potential disappointment or, worse, outward anger (particularly when combined with freely-available social lubricant). My goal here is to determine how best to enhance the mental models of our guests, and head off any potential problems before the wedding day.

I see a few different ways to do this:
  1. Strategic leaking: We can leak to select potential (chatty) wedding guests that the menu will be mostly hors d'oeuvres, and that we are serving pies, rather than cake.
  2. Publicly-available website: We can direct people on the invitations to this blog or our wedding website, which will have the full menu available to readers, well-wishers, and guests.
  3. Invitation enclosures: We can include a copy of the menu in the wedding invitation.
  4. Caveat emptor: We can do nothing, and conduct a small social experiment.
Option A gives me the enjoyment of categorizing our guests according to their interconnectedness (and loquaciousness), which might be perversely fun. Sadly, I think it is ultimately too difficult to verify that the information has been passed.

Going with only Option B requires a good bit of additional work from the guests. Most people will not visit a website that they receive on a piece of snail mail. People are busy, and have far more important things to worry about than our wedding. (As my mother would say, it's probably not in "their top two.") By the time they start thinking about the wedding, it is quite possible that the invitation was lost, or that the information was written elsewhere.

I personally am leaning towards Option C, likely in combination with B. It is the most direct and transparent way to circulate the information that I want to circulate. It also, I think, gives people a chance to look inside the process a bit, and to feel involved.

In another context, Option D could be fun. But I would like to get the marriage off on the right foot. There are thousands of potential flashpoints in this sort of social interaction; as the logistics guy here, my goal is to minimize them.

So, as of now, I am in favor of including the full menu along with our invitations, preferably on some sort of ceremonial stationery, along with posting it on the website. Katherine agrees, but we're still trying to figure out a way to word it and make it look classy. Any ideas?


Angie said...

you need to submit this somewhere. perhaps the zine lizzie and i are making? this is fabulous.

as always. duh :)

Celia Milton, Civil Celebrant said...

Drawing on years of catering experience (I owned a company for almost 20 years...) and several years of attending weddings every weekend, I can tell ya that the "cocktail" party portion of the reception is the part that everyone loves. Serving dinner afterwards is almost always redundant and almost always way too much food. That being said, I've always thought that informed guests are happy guests. On the invitations, you could say, "Join us for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres after the ceremony. Or "Join us for a light reception after the ceremony". Either one of those phrases will probably accomplish the goal of under-promising and over delivering, but it will let your guests know what to expect. I would predict too, that there will be some viral word of mouth that will clarify the menu too (though I wouldn't send the exact menu out; we all like surprises...)

As for the pie? With apologies to all my friends and colleagues who are cake bakers, no one will miss that. Just don't skip the "cutting of the ____)....that is a photo opp that every guest loves.

Anonymous said...

i totally agree with both you & angie. submit this.

my mom used to be the option A type - and the memories of getting my first shots or bones reset or whatever are written over by remembering that she lied to me about the pain.

once i had to get a baby tooth pulled...except that my mom PROMISED me i wouldn't have to get a tooth pulled that day, that i could come back another day. i ran around the dentist's office screaming "you lied to me!" i was a complete handful of a kid - but the premise is there...she had already set up so many empty expectations and i was devastated by the breach of trust, as small as it may seem.

Lisa said...

I vote B or C. People are weird and will always be upset about something. If you put it out there, its better than being surprised. I think I would also pick C- level with the child. we'll see if thats the case when i do have kids

Evelyn said...

In APW's dry wedding thread, commenter Cheryl had some excellent advice on invitation wording:

So something like "Join us for hors d'oeuvres, cocktails, and pies galore," which sounds fun and awesome, can get the message across without having to send out the exact menu. And like you said, most people probably won't check your website for updates, so they may be thrown for a loop if you end up needing to change the menu.


how many varieties of pie will you have?

As an emergency back up, I will carry a big handbag with a footlong in it for CCL.

Theophila said...

Hi Dan! You've never met me (or probably even heard of me). I'm assuming Katie (Katherine? Kwu? Gosh, it's been so long I KNOW I'm using an outdated nickname!) will read this too, so it's to you both!

I completely agree with Celia. Honestly, most guest don't care about the cake so much, as it's just a gesture. I firmly believe that certain rituals are important to solemnise the occasion, but as far as how they're conducted and the specifics - as long as it doesn't make a mockery of the occasion, go for it!

We only had a 6" topper cake with mainly cupcakes for the guests. Though several of them wanted cake, and I remember spending so long serving them that other than our initial cutting and bite, we didn't actually get to sit down and enjoy our own slice of that delicious cake! So remember to have one friend/somebody in the wedding party/assistant help take over the cutting and serving of cake, pie, or whatever else. But either way, most didn't care! Plus it allowed more flavours than simply restricted to tiers of a cake, and with the right bakery, cost much less! Honestly, I think tiered pies would be awesome!

And I also agree on the redundancy that dinner could be. Apart from the fact that it simply was more affordable for our DIY wedding to have "drop-off" buffet catering, we also wanted guests to be able to eat at their own pace, as much or as little food as they wanted, not forced to be glued to their chairs throughout several courses. And I (and many people I know) personally LOVE finger foods. The size and variety is just right, and it allows for people to mingle with their food. Portable food makes for an enjoyable party. Since we were having a swing wedding (dinner and dancing), we needed to feed the guests over several hours. But if we were doing an afternoon wedding or not keeping them for that many hours, hors d'oeuvres would have made the perfect food. The wording that Celia suggested is perfect. You don't have to give a full menu, but if you don't mention a meal, but mention "cocktails and hors d'oeuvres," people will understand. It's not that uncommon, especially since many people don't even do food or cocktails and simply say "join us after the ceremony for a cake cutting and champagne toast."

If you want to be a little more specific with expectations, you can always give just enough specifics so that they understand you didn't "leave something out," simply that nothing else will be happening. For example:

Reception following the ceremony

[reception address]

Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at three o'clock
Toasts at 4 o'clock
Cake cutting at 5 o'clock

The wording is terrible (we had more "steps" in our reception, so it was better laid out), but you get the idea. I honestly feel that the one line that Celia suggested would be perfect though. It's simple and delivers the message clearly without cluttering up an invitation.


Adventures Along The Way said...

I totally agree with you about the expectation thing. And I like Evelyn'S idea on wording. For our own invitation we went with "Dessert soirée to follow" to convey that it was a dessert reception only and that there would be dancing/music. I think it worked okay and heard no one complain, so I guess we gave people relatively accurate expectations. :) Good luck in wording things!

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