Do I really have to give you a five star rating?

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In the everyday dilemmas of modern etiquette, when to award or deny five stars is one that separates generations. As with many things, the web has trained younger people to simply reach for five stars, shrug their shoulders, and move on.

You can also separate nationalities. For the British, for whom the highest form of praise is that something is “not bad”, the very idea of ​​giving something five stars out of five simply attacks the national psyche. Four stars seem effusive enough. In contrast, Americans, who find the mere delivery of a cup of coffee “amazing,” are less concerned about giving top marks.

The problem arose for me recently at the end of a weekend getaway at a place I would definitely recommend, when the owners texted me to say they would send me a survey to fill out about my stay, but if I didn’t feel capable To give them a five star rating, they would prefer to hear from me what I think is missing. The underlying message was that if I couldn’t give them top marks, they’d rather I didn’t bother at all.

I was immediately irritated by that presumption. Without the warning, he might as well have handed out the obligatory five. There were a couple of small frustrations, but nothing to worry about. Rounding up would be fairer than rounding down. And although the place was of high quality, it charged a high price, so surely expectations had to be higher as well. Obviously, the Savoy in London would have to perform much better than the Best Western to deserve five stars.

And this is the crux of the matter. For me, and I suspect for many others, five stars means excellence; is exceeding expectations. However, for companies like the one providing me with hosting, it simply means “as promised.”

The reality is that, aside from grumpy holdouts like, well, me, people are slowly being pushed toward a new understanding in which five stars no longer indicates some form of delight with the experience. It simply means that your Deliveroo passenger didn’t eat the food on the way.

So it’s time to reframe your perspective. An Uber ride in which you arrive on time and without being bothered and without enduring 20 minutes on the Bill Gates vaccine conspiracy is automatically a five star. Rent an Airbnb? Did you find yourself sharing with squatters? No, then it’s five stars. Your loft addition is still standing after four days, five stars, damn it. Did the bank employee on the phone sound very smiling while he refused to help you with his problem? Five stars.

There are even companies, often websites, that encourage employees to get in touch to ask why they have given you “only” four stars. The only possible answer to “why did you only give me four stars?” It’s just that they didn’t give me the option of 4.5. It’s a little better if you can leave comments in addition to stars. Then you can reward your high five but leave some qualifying comments. And look, I’m all for veering toward generosity, but, well, I’m not really.

Once upon a time four out of five would be considered a good rating. Likewise, if four is so terrible, why bother offering it along with all the others? Simply offer the option of five stars or none. The impact of this pressure is that many of us stop bothering to give a grade, but perhaps that’s the point. And how far do we take this? It may be fine for Uber, but I’m not entirely sure this grading principle works for GCSE.

By the way, for those reading online, I’m way ahead of you. Five stars only in the comments please, whatever the comic opportunity is to go lower. Print readers can email robert@5starsorstraighttospam.com. And don’t worry about telling me how I could improve your experience. Remember that at the end of this process there is a human being who completed this task entirely to his own satisfaction.

The purpose of a star rating is surely to separate the good from the bad, the great from the good, and if not, the whole exercise becomes increasingly meaningless. But it seems that ship has already sailed. We were once promised a world where we would all be famous for 15 minutes. Now we can all look forward to a five-star future. As long as we calibrate it with three-star expectations.

Email Roberto at magazineletters@ft.com

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