What is “Average”?

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be “average”, otherwise known as the sum of all units divided by the total number of units.

We use that term a lot in society, but when you think about it, it doesn’t really mean much without proper context. Let’s consider it with respect to singing ability, not just because it’s a good example, but since it’s what got me onto this topic.

I usually say that I’m an “above-average” singer, which puts me in a grey area that’s virtually impossible to define. Am I saying that I’m average relative to all of the people in the world? Or am I average within the group of people who think of themselves as singers, or some other subset of the population? Also, is my opinion based on vocal power, range, timber, versatility, technical process, or some other factor? Most likely it’s a combination of those things.

Honestly, I can’t tell you what I mean when I say that I’m an above-average singer. And if I don’t know what it means, how are you supposed to know? There isn’t enough context, particularly when you question what evidence I’m basing my judgement on.

Let’s look at it this way:

  • In a random karaoke bar, I think I’ll likely be one of the best male singers in the room
  • In a community choir, I’ll have one of the stronger tenor voices, but others will have more technical proficiency
  • In the FASS Theatre Group, I was consistently one of the strongest and most versatile singers, but I can think of a few people who I knew were more talented
  • When I’ve watched American/Canadian Idol, I thought I was better than most of the people who auditioned, but I wasn’t confident that I’d move on to the second stage

If it’s a comparison to the world population, then I’d guess that I’m a well-above-average singer. But if you’re comparing to the significantly smaller subset of people who think of themselves as talented singers, then I really dunno. It’s fair to assume that the majority of people who participate in singing competitions (karaoke, televised, or otherwise) think they’re pretty good. And yet, a lot of them clearly aren’t good, and some are genuinely surprised when a judge tells them as much.

Am I over-thinking this? Yeah, of course I am. But it’s amusing, so whatever. Besides, you’re the one who’s bothered to read this far.

In a larger sense, this is about subjective measurements, which always rely on someone’s opinion. That’s why you rarely have an Olympics without an ice-skating controversy, a talent competition where everyone agrees on the winner, or a sport with a unanimous vote for the most valuable player. We’d all have to agree on the criteria beforehand, which has not proven to be a strength of our society (no matter how hard we try).

I’ll never really know what “average” means…but I doubt that’ll stop me from continuing to use it in everyday conversation.