‘The Eggshell Thing’

This post originally appeared on the Cognitive Edge blog on December 15, 2010.

My first project as an accredited practitioner was with a large international publisher that was trying to get a better sense of customer satisfaction with its products. I can still remember having some “disconnects” along the lines of, whoa, how does that story relate to that prompt, or what else was going on in that person’s life that led them to signify that story in that way? I quickly realized that a respondent’s text is always set in some context, but we as practitioners may not necessarily be able to know the latter, no matter how well the prompts and signifiers are crafted. This situation isn’t good or bad; it just is.

When I recounted this to my husband Steve, he said, “There was a great post on a newsgroup, alt.coffee, in the mid- to late nineties that illustrates that beautifully.” After I read it, I agreed. To put it in our context for this blog, the story prompt could have been:

Please share an experience of removing grounds from a fresh-brewed pot of coffee that was either a magnificent success or a dismal failure.

One comment in the 1995 newsgroup thread suggested swinging the pot around to achieve a centrifuge effect; another described adding eggshells to the pot to settle the grounds. Then, Paul Horne weighed in:

I find an even easier alternative is to slap on your walkman, hike down to Starbucks, and order an iced triple latte. Sip it there, read the local paper, and meet the man or woman of your dreams. Then sneak into the local theatre for a classic movie, and it will have begun raining. Run laughing through the rain with your newfound love, and duck into a little family-owned Italian restaurant for some pasta and a bottle of Chianti. Discover that you both lived on the same block when you were growing up, but had never meet [sic] each other. You will find that not only are they the only person you’ve met who’s funnier than you are, but they are also extremely sexy and smart, with piercing blue eyes that make you feel naked yet alive, excited but safe. Get a room at a Bed & Breakfast, have the best sex of your life, and sprawl across each other’s naked, entwined limbs as you split a pint of Haagen-Dazs. Better yet, get two pints because the only thing you don’t agree on yet is which is better–Cappuccino Commotion or Deep Chocolate Peanut Butter. Leave the B&B (where the blushing old lady has given you a free room, thanked you for reminding her of the potential and godliness of true love, and closed the Inn so she could spend the night alone with her husband of 49 years), and stop back at Starbucks for a decaf grande. Reminisce about your day, and express your utter and complete devotion to each other for the rest of eternity. Exchange rings that you both have–family heirlooms passed down for generations–kiss passionately, and have your picture taken by an amateur photographer who was just passing through town, and whose picture of your kiss will win him a Pulitzer prize and the cover of Life magazine. Order a carafe of espresso for your friends, and hike back up the mountain with your soulmate. You will find your friends, soaking wet from the rain and huddled around a campfire. Pass out the espresso to your fellow campers, and introduce your new love. The warmth of your love will fill their hearts and dry their clothes, and they will think he/she is the ideal person for you. After a couple hours of talking and laughing and writing poetry and singing with your friends, both of you curl up in your sleeping bag, wrap your arms around each other, and fall asleep under a breathtakingly bright Milky Way.

I don’t know, that’s just me. I’ve heard the eggshell thing works also.

While this is superficially about coffee — and not at all about removing the grounds, except in the final sentence — it is fundamentally about life and love and beauty. It wouldn’t occur to most of us to write signifiers with enough “breadth” to capture the essence of what Mr. Horne was conveying in this story. But it is worth keeping in mind that some of our respondents may be thinking substantially beyond the bounds that we envision.