(featured image: jEd dC/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0)
We often assume we are entitled to something, but that is literally only half of the story
Years ago, my (British) colleagues and I had what we thought was a brilliant idea for a practical joke. We were in a French chateau, at a debriefing session concluding a large international project with ten Germans on the team. Our plan was to sneak into the meeting room late that evening with all our spare towels, and place them on the chairs, a reference to a curious German tourist custom.
Well, perhaps not that curious. You may remember that, once upon a time, German citizens holidaying around the Mediterranean had a reputation of getting up at the crack of dawn to place towels on the best placed loungers around the hotel pool, to assert the temporary ownership they believed to be entitled to (to the detriment of the not-so-early birds among the guests, naturally). In the event, we never got to see the reaction of our German colleagues at the meeting, since the staff of the venue had got up at the crack of dawn and removed the towels before breakfast. (In hindsight, I guess the joke was not all that funny anyway.)
Visible when there is a conflict
Entitlements permeate social interaction in numerous ways. Some are enshrined in law, for example entitlements to free or subsidized healthcare, education, and to welfare like child benefit or a pension. But most form part of social norms, for example the entitlement to a seat on a crowded public transport vehicle for passengers who find it hard to stand up.
They can also influence our behaviour, as illustrated on poolside sunbeds and in aircraft cabins, where conflicts may arise over the allocation of space related to the position of the seat backs. As the distance between airline seats gradually shrunk over the last 50 years, reclining one’s backrest has intruded more and more into the space of the person in the seat behind. While one individual may firmly believe they are entitled to sit back and relax, not least because the seat is a equipped with a button to allow this to happen, the other may be equally convinced that they are entitled to the space for their knees, or to use a laptop computer on the folding table without having to squeeze their elbows in an anatomically unlikely position.
It is indeed especially when conflicts around entitlements (actual or perceived) arise that they become salient. As long as everyone gets what they believe they are entitled to, they are barely noticed, but when people feel short changed, tempers can flare up quickly.
Fuzzy definitions and one-sidedness
This is probably in part because of the fuzzy, malleable definition of the concept. What makes us entitled to something? Unsurprisingly, we may well be a little biased towards simply considering whatever is good for us as an entitlement. Who wants to park their car two blocks away? So, we hypothesize some kind of entitlement to park our car right in front of our house. Even if we know that it is not real, it entitles (!) us to grumble when someone has the temerity to leave their car where ours should be. (We used to have a neighbour who complained whenever anyone parked their car in front of his house, in the firm belief that such an entitlement really existed.) Similarly, in a movie theatre, we like to think we are entitled to seat with an unencumbered view of the screen, and we are annoyed if a tall person – arriving at the 11th hour! – plonks himself down right in the empty seat in front of us.
Imagine you’re in the queue at a café at a tourist spot, and you’ve got your eye on the last slice of strawberry cheesecake in the display cabinet. As you order it, you hear the person behind you sigh that they were hoping to get that piece of cake. But who, in your view, is more entitled to it? You of course, because you were first.
Sometimes being first is not enough, though. I recall one Friday evening, on the last flight home from Amsterdam, a man walking up to the passenger seated across the aisle from me, claiming that was their seat. Both men then produced their boarding passes, which showed the same name and the same seat number, to the bafflement of the cabin crew. It turned out that these two gentlemen had the same surname and initial, and for some reason the staff at the desk (this happened well before online check-in) had issued a duplicate boarding card to the person already seated. Who ended up being entitled to the seat here? Not the Mr Brown who got his boarding pass first, but the Mr Brown who had possession of the seat – in the entitlement stakes, possession is a powerful argument.
Perhaps the most legitimate reason for entitlement in our own eyes, however, is that we have made some kind of sacrifice – we worked or we paid for something: “I slaved all my life, so I am entitled to a decent pension!”, or “I paid £200 for this hotel room, so I am entitled to a sea view rather than one of the car park!”
Two sides to the coin
But all these reasons tend to take a rather self-centred perspective of what an entitlement is, which overlooks something fundamental: there can be no entitlement unless someone else is able and prepared to fulfil it. Maybe it is precisely this last subset of entitlements that can help us understand this, and abandon the idea that entitlements are only about what we have a right to expect.
Last Sunday, the Belgian Formula 1 Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps was not quite what the more than 70,000 fans (nor the drivers) anticipated: persistent heavy rain first delayed the start of the race by half an hour, then, after just eight minutes, caused the race to be suspended for nearly three hours. When it restarted, the elation of the drenched spectators was short-lived: after barely another two laps it was suspended again, and eventually, a few minutes later, abandoned.
Here, the fans had definitely made a significant sacrifice: some had paid upwards of £500 for a ticket. Surely they were entitled to a refund? That is what many spectators claimed, supported by drivers Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz. But this case shows that an entitlement is one side of a coin, with on the other side an obligation of another party to fulfil it.
It is true that the enjoyment of the F1-fans on that rainy afternoon undoubtedly fell seriously short of their expectations, and it is true that they paid the race organizers significant amounts of money. But does that constitute an entitlement to a refund that the organizers are obliged to meet? They were not responsible for the unusually bad weather, and it is not clear what they could have done differently to give the spectators a satisfactory experience. There was a risk this would happen, but it is by no means obvious that the consequences of the event should be borne by the race organizers.
Of course, it is possible to explicitly reflect in the commercial agreement that the purchase of a ticket represents the obligation to refund spectators in case the race is cancelled because of bad weather, earthquakes, acts of terrorism, all drivers being struck by a severe bout of diarrhoea or whatever (and hence grant them the entitlement). In that case, the organizers would of course have been wise enough to take out insurance… and reflect that extra cost in the price of the ticket.
When we feel we are entitled to something, it is worth checking the other side of the coin, figuring out whose the obligation would be to fulfil this entitlement, and whether that is a legitimate and reasonable expectation. If that is not the case, our entitlement is just a figment of our imagination.