Interesting thread with a lot of food for thought.
Here are some of my ideas, in no particular order:
First, how much detail we see in shadows and the quality of the shadow edges often gives us a perceptual cue as to the "original" lighting situation. Our eyes lose the ability to see detail as it gets darker. In darker situations, shadows are empty to our eyes. In prints with high contrast taken in bright, harsh lighting situations, the shadows go dark and detail-less in the print, or at least the detail is in the very lowest values. This cues our brains to think that the "original" lighting was dark. Ever notice that even in harsh sunlight, you can see easily into the shadows? But that in softly-lit dark situations (read low-contrast) you can't?
Remember those old black-and-white TV shows from the 50s and 60s? When they wanted a "night scene," they simply put on a red filter and underexposed. The shadows went black, the highlights were darker than usual, but still fairly bright, but we all bought it that it was "night" and that the characters were sneaking around in the dark.
I think that opening up the shadows, by changing paper contrast or by dodging/burning/changing exposure can make a huge difference in the perception of what we think is the "original" lighting situation. Some hard shadows are needed, but they need to be open and detailed enough that our brain doesn't think "oh, it's nighttime." This might be the answer to the OPs original problem.
The opposite is often true with photos on orthochromatic materials. Shadows are often very soft and luminous on prints made from ortho film, and the skies are usually white. Our brain says, "bright overcast with low contrast and open shadows" even if the original lighting was clear blue skies and direct sunlight.
It all lies in the interplay between shadowed and lit areas and the way our brains interpret the relationships of tonalities and amount of detail.
As for prints needing a maximum black, or that all highlights should be printed just below paper-base white, etc. These are just guidelines for beginners. Highlights belong where they work best; i.e., where the balance of brilliance and detail is right for the subject. Placing these is totally subjective and often material-dependent (some papers separate more than others in the toe). Display lighting plays a huge role, as does the relationship between tonalities in the print. We need a well-developed aesthetic sense as printers to make the highlights feel like we want them to.
Sometimes I print to pure paper white (a "no-no" in some circles), and sometimes my highest value is a richly-detailed Zone VIII. And, I have tons of prints that I purposely print without a maximum black, or even very close. Dense blacks in a print look solid; lifting them a little gives them an openness even if there is no detail present, which is often the difference between a print that sings and one that doesn't.
At university, along with my other studies, I took courses in optics and visual perception. These were "eye-opening" to say the least. How we perceive values in adjacent areas of different tonalities is fascinating. The same gray feels very different next to a lighter value than a darker one. Zone V can look really bright when surrounded by blacks, but really drab and dark when it's in a field of whites. This gets very subtle and complex very quickly when there are a lot of tonalities in a print. A feeling for how tonalities expressively interrelate takes a while to develop (at least it did for me) and should be applied at the visualization stage, when deciding Zone placements and development schemes.
When printing, we need to balance all these different perceptual and subjective things when making decisions about contrast, print manipulations, etc. It is complex enough that one cannot make rules to follow; it is really an art, and precisely here lies the art of printing in my estimation.
Print evaluation is difficult unless one knows exactly what lighting the print will be displayed under. I evaluate my prints in everything from direct sunlight to rather dim incandescent lighting and try to strike a compromise that works in various lighting conditions. But, shadows that look open and luminous in sunlight can often look dark and featureless in dimmer artificial light (the same phenomenon that I mentioned at the beginning). There's nothing to do about this but print for an ideal lighting situation. I try to print for rather bright gallery lighting, but I know that when someone buys a print and then displays it in a dark corner of their living room, it's just not going to look as good. I try to bring this to the purchaser's attention when I can.
For me, there is always a point when printing when I have several prints of different exposure/contrast/manipulations tacked up on the viewing board and I say to myself, "any of those do the job for me, depending on my mood and the display lighting." At this point, I stop refining; one can get to obsessive about getting the "perfect" print and really get lost in the law of diminishing returns. No two performances of a piece of music are exactly the same, so why should my performances of a negative be? As long as they are pleasing and expressive and communicate the visual and artistic goals I have, then small variances, or even different basic interpretations are possible. Loud or soft, fast or slow, bright or dark, contrasty or soft? The main thing is that the print works within itself... for me.
I'll quit now, this is getting so long no one will bother to read it.