It’s midterm season again, and everyone is looking to achieve that ever elusive perfect score. So why is there so much tension around test results when people do well?
After I aced my physics midterm, I didn’t tell anybody in my class how well I did. I was afraid of people teasing me for my work ethic, questioning the legitimacy of my score or otherwise undermining my accomplishment.
But these are middle school behaviors. College students are more mature than that, right? They’re unlikely to go around calling me names like “tryhard” or making baseless accusations of cheating to the teacher, right? So why am I still so afraid?
Although these specific behaviors have gone away, the motivations behind them have stayed, and those motivations can tell us a lot about how we conceptualize our relationships with others.
Let’s break down why people want to know other people’s scores in the first place.
I usually ask how others do on tests with a selfish goal; either I want validation that I did well compared to the rest of the class, or I want an easy conversation starter. If someone else in the class gets a better test score than I did, the goals I had in asking the question can remain unfulfilled.
When I’m looking for validation that I’m above average, someone else’s amazing score puts that validation further out of reach. When I’m looking to start a conversation about the test, the easiest conversation topic is complaining about the difficulty of specific questions or the test overall, which is impossible when the other person got all of those questions right.
If someone gets a perfect score, it feels good until someone asks them about it for a selfish reason. If my score doesn’t achieve the goals of the person asking me how I did, I am left with three options:
- Hedge. Try to change the topic, speak in generalizations instead of giving my actual score, or otherwise avoid the other person learning how I did. This option works for a short period of time, but the questioner will eventually ask more directly, forcing me to give a specific score.
- Lie. If addressed directly, pick an average score to tell everyone, and the conversation quickly moves on. This is the least awkward of the options available, and the one I usually go with.
- Tell the truth. This option is terrifying because when the questioner’s goals in asking the question aren’t achieved, they often get irritated and vent that irritation onto the closest target: the person who got an amazing score. In middle school, it led to name-calling, accusations of cheating, and other such nonsense. In college, responses tend towards passive aggression and awkward silence.
This dynamic also exists elsewhere in society. Discussions about salary, promotions and other accomplishments are tainted by the social awkwardness of outshining somebody else. With these adverse reactions, it makes me wonder why I want to excel at all.
Is there still room to ask about others’ accomplishments? I think so. The issue isn’t the question, but the selfish motivation behind it. If I ask someone how the test went hoping to support them, whether by praising them for a great score or helping them work through a poor one, the other person is better off from the question no matter how well they did.
But what is my role as the person who lied about her score on the physics midterm? I’m the one lying after all. Does the responsibility rest entirely on others to give me a safe space to excel, or is it my role to be honest despite the discomfort? And how do I balance that honesty with a measure of humility to ensure people who didn’t do as well don’t feel intimidated or patronized?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Although I can’t control how other people act, I can reevaluate my own actions. If somebody asks me for my score on the next test, I will tell them honestly without hedging or embarrassment. And if I ask someone how they did, I will make sure I’m doing it for the right reasons.