“I hope your meal was very satisfying.”

Those words came out of the mouth of a Denny’s restaurant manager who was checking up on customers and got to me just as I finished a short stack of pancakes and a glass of orange juice. That phrase “very satisfying” stuck in my head the rest of the day. I’d always thought of “satisfying” as a binary toggle switch — either I was satisfied, or I wasn’t.

But a spectrum of satisfaction does exist in a world where companies pretend to be concerned with how customers feel about their experience. And when there’s a follow-up call or an online survey, they want you to give them high scores, so they prime the pump with verbal cues like “very satisfying.”

In the same week, I was reminded by cashiers at three different businesses to check the bottom of the receipts for information on how to fill out an online survey about the company, which would enter me into a monthly drawing for a cash prize. The dealership that I bought a new car from several months ago still hounds me to fill out a “satisfaction survey.”

This survey-mania has less to do with providing feedback or giving away cash prizes, and more to do with adding as many Americans as possible to the giant database of knowledge that every corporation uses to market and target themselves to you, just as they do every time you use your loyalty card at checkout, or their website puts cookies on your computer to track where you browse to next, or you give the guy at Radio Shack your home phone number just because you bought a pack of batteries.

It must be working — getting people to give away their opinions and information for virtually nothing — or we wouldn’t see so many companies doing it. But the truth is that most people only contact a company when they are dissatisfied. You don’t call the St. Louis Bread Company to report how much you enjoyed your broccoli cheese soup and tuna sandwich. You call them when you bite into the bread and find a toe.

Not long ago, I had a problem with an internet provider and had to call its support line for assistance. When the support tech answered, she said her name was Linda (despite a heavy accent that hinted she was at a call center in Bangalore, India) and the first thing she asked me was, “How can I provide excellent service for you today?” Twenty minutes later, it was apparent that, while she could read instructions to me out of the support manual in front of her, she had no real solution to my specific problem, nor could she lessen my frustration. Nonetheless, she apologized — and then invited me to call again when I needed excellent service in the future.

In the future? I still need excellent service in the present. Mark me down as “very unsatisfied.”