Sympathy without sympathy
“YMMV” (Your Mileage May Vary) is among the most mistakenly noble gestures of modern online life.
It seems generous on first blush. In online forum talk in particular, YMMV is used to flag one’s opinion, and purportedly to recognize that others might have a different one. I found this diet really helpful, but YMMV. A kind of deferential shrug, a way of saying, “Hey, this is my experience, things might be different for you.” That’s what YMMV says, that’s it’s semantic payload.
But that’s not what YMMV means. What it means is just the opposite of what it says: YMMV acknowledges that the speaker knows there is material he or she (but really, let’s be honest: he) has failed or refused to address. YMMV performs a scoff: “I cannot be troubled to ponder options beyond my own immediate experience.” Or even worse, “I’ve considered that there are other possibilities, but I have deemed them unworthy of further attention.” YMMV is a way of feigning sympathy without meaning it.
It’s no wonder. “Your mileage may vary” is an automotive advertising phrase, a line in the fine print disclaiming any promises of fuel economy presented in a print or television spot. Like all disclaimers, it’s a way to justify reneging on a claim or a promise. If your mileage does vary, it’s not our fault.
Starting with the 2013 model year, the EPA rolled out a new fuel economy sticker for vehicles. It features a number of changes, including a prominent, combined mileage figure based on 55% city and 45% highway driving. It also revises the YMMV sentiment, now reading:
Actual results will vary for many reasons, including driving conditions and how you drive and maintain your vehicle.
The EPA sticker takes the advertiser’s sociopathy and combines it with the bureaucrat’s unconcern: truth in averages, determined by an unseen process. This official verion of YMMV says, “Here’s your expected fuel economy,” but it means, “We had to put something here, and this was good enough for government work.” The EPA sticker is the definition of bad bureaucracy: virtue ex officio. But rather than do the work of figuring out how to engage with individual drivers’ fuel costs and environmental impact, the EPA deploys the same false sympathy as the forum poster: iono, it worked for me.
YMMV is akin to the politician’s apology, an apology that admits no wrongdoing but instead laments the fact that the victim was wronged in the first place. I’m sorry if you were offended. You might call YMMV a sign of unsympathetic sympathy: I feel that you don’t share my feeling.
But just as a real apology has to entail actual regret, regret that grasps the wrong fully and makes amends for it, a real expression of sympathy has to entail actual feeling. It has to attempt to imagine the position of the sympathized and ponder what it would be like to feel that way. YMMV just grunts in the general direction of sympathy. It does the minimum.
We’re used to advertisers and bureaucrats and politicians telling us half-truths, pretending to care about the everyman’s plight when really they’re just looking out for their own interests or covering their asses. What’s new about YMMV is the way it transfers the logic of disclaimer from the domain of the advertiser or the bureaucrat into daily life, into encounters between ordinary people, where we’d hope to expect something greater than a shrug and an asterisk.
That’s my take on it, anyway, but YMMV.