What does it mean when we say that something is “beyond expectation” or “more than we expected”?

To expect: mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘defer action, wait’): from Latin exspectare ‘look out for’, from ex- ‘out’ + spectare ‘to look’ (frequentative of specere ‘see’).

Expectation is centered on the future. The future is unknown and uncertain. Expectation reflects a psychological (existential?) need to make this future more manageable, i.e. the need to control.

“Beyond expectation”, in everyday language, indicate the quality of being great, excellent, exceptional, unique; more than what we thought would be the case. It is usually a positive evaluation. It is almost never applied to oneself, but always to somebody else’s performance or behavior. Because it is the Other that represents the unknown.

A surprise is something not expected, i.e. something outside the horizon of possibilities that one has envisioned. It is antonymous to normalcy, the norm. So when expectation is directed toward a person, it acts as a norm, an evaluation, a script to perform according to, thus linked to the idea of social norms, of accordance with a set of rules. What is expected means what is normal, i.e. conforming to a standard, typical, usual. It is also predictable: something known beforehand.

When we do not have sufficient clues about an other, we cannot put her in any existing category that structures our own interpersonal framework. Therefore, we cannot assign that person to any behavior or performance script. In other words, we do not have expectation about that person. “We do not know what we do not know”. However, as mentioned before, expectation characterizes a more general psychological pattern. It is fundamental to help human beings orient themselves in life. It is an inevitable attitude towards the future. Therefore, by conventions of language, we still say that someone is beyond expectation even though we do not have any expectation about that specific person. It should be simply interpreted as a compliment on that individual’s exceptionality.

There is a slightly different nuance of meaning in French: “beyond expectation” is translated as “dépasser les attentes (de quelqu’un)”. Expectation is waiting for something that might or is likely to come, but whose existence is not confirmed until its actual occurrence. Waiting has a taste of yearning in it, which is more sentimental. However, the idea remains the same: it implies a movement forward in time. In the end, it boils down to how human beings relate to everything that constitutes the Other, i.e. what is outside the present self, the unknown, be it the future or an immediate other reality.


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