On “Average”

Something I’ve noticed in many disagreements is the tendency to argue from opposing frames of reference while remaining ignorant of that gap in understanding. It’s sometimes funny to look at these discussions from the outside, realizing that a simple explanation would change the course of the conversation. These misinterpretations could occur when the same expression means different things to different people.

The word “Average” would be an example. It’s often used in reviews to signify a mid-level grade. It all depends on how you look at it. One man’s 7/10 can be another’s 5/10.  This could be problem in polls, in which different people are asked to grade a work of art.

If you say that something is an average book, does it mean that if you were to rank all the books you’ve ever read, that it would fall somewhere in the middle? Or does it mean that if you were to rank all the titles that are available for purchase, the book would fall somewhere in the middle?

The first criteria is much stricter, since most pop culture consumers are selective to an extent, choosing to watch films that are more likely to be better than average, and read books that are better than average, in the context of material available for purchase. For obvious reasons we’re more likely to check out that is somewhat acclaimed, which means that it should be better than average. Even most critics are selective, so their average experience is going to be literally above-average. And that’s where people can have different frames of reference for the word, regardless of what they’re discussing (sports, movies, comic books, etc.)

For example, I saw about thirty or so movies released in 2010. These included all ten Best Picture nominees, and a few films with really good reviews (The Illusionist, How to Train Your Dragon, Waiting for “Superman, Four Lions, The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, etc.) There were some popular (and not so popular) movies I chose not to see, largely due to less than stellar reviews (Twilight, Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender, Robin Hood, The Expendables, The Little Fockers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The A-team, Cop Out, Brooklyn’s Finest, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, The Losers, The Bounty Hunter, etc). The 20th best movie I saw from 2010 was probably still pretty good. Though it’s technically below average in terms of my movie-going experiences.

Whenever I start polls on message boards asking people to provide grades for a work of art, I try to use a different phrase than average to explain a choice that’s in the middle. I’m definitely over-thinking this one, but if the definition of average varies from person to person, it’s less effective as an option in polls.

Though I’m told that the alternate terms I use tend to have negative connotations. I tried to use “Bearable” to suggest that the work may still be worthwhile, and that it isn’t particularly bad. I tried using “Pedestrian” but that’s not quite right either. It suggests a work that is lacking in distinction, vitality and imagination (going by the dictionary definition) while there are circumstances under which a “C” work could still have distinctive and imaginative elements.

Personally, I think “Average” has negative connotations, too.  Considering all the books, movies, comics, music and video games available, it’s pretty clear that there’s a much better way to spend your time than something that’s merely average.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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3 Responses to On “Average”

  1. Jesse says:

    It’s a fairly common confusion between people. The word “average” is only understandable if you include the range that its supposed to cover. There can be many averages based on different ranges, so you have to be specific when describing or explaining an average. For example any range or string of statistics can have an average.

    So i feel like too many people throw around the word average without really having a range in mind. It just feels average to them, so they use the word average in a casual manner, and thats the error.

    The word average shouldnt be used unless you describe the range your referring to, like say if your reviewing an issue of Incredible hulk , and u say its average, you should also say something like ..based on every issue so far this year. Another thing about averages is, they usually change from 1 issue to the next.

    Also there is no universal grading or scoring system for quality. Some use a 5 star rating others A-F, and others yet just use less specific final grades.

    Reviewing and grading quality is always going to be a matter of personal preference and perspective, no matter how scientific or absolute any1 tries to make it seem.

    • Thomas Mets says:

      That brings up another potential difference in frames of reference.

      If you really like the Hulk, you may think that the average Hulk comic is better than the average comic book. The difference would be even more pronounced in television, where there may be more consistency in quality. The average episode of the Wire will be pretty damn good.

      • Jesse says:

        Exactly. It all depends what your trying to compare it to. It wouldnt make much sense to compare the quality of an average issue of the Hulk to say the average quality of a glass of milk. Thats why the bigger gap you have between two subjects the less sense it makes to compare them.

        Therefore it really only makes sense to compare very similar subjects, like say issues of Hulk from the same writer, instead of issues of the hulk from different writers. you gotta compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, otherwise it just becomes convoluted and completely open to interpretation.

        It all goes back to the fact that some people prefer chocolate and others vanilla so who is really to say what beats what? The best we can do as reviewers is to describe our experience.

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