Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Raging Coupon Cutting Debate: Why We Should Be More Like the French

My apartment building puts out a monthly newsletter – a glossy thing with some stock photos of smiling, racially ambiguous people and a few brain dead articles that could probably have been written by an algorithm. If the newsletter were an animal, it would have about the lifespan of a fruit fly. 12 – 24 hours maximum from the time the ink dries to the time it is returned to nature via the building recycling bin. Perusing the main newsletter headlines usually doesn’t take more than about ten seconds of my monthly time so, after spending another ten seconds muttering a few derogatory comments about the thing, I can get on with my life without too much anguish.

But then this month I discovered a disclaimer in the corner of the second page. Maybe it had been there every month and I just now noticed it for the first time. Or maybe it was new. Here’s what it said: “the views expressed herein are not necessarily those of [the management company] and neither [the management company] nor its affiliates… assumes responsibility for any materials submitted for publication or for any loss or injury arising out of the publication of such materials.” Additionally, “any action taken in reliance on the views contained herein is taken at the risk of the reader.” The disclaimer piqued my interest. Why would something like that be necessary unless there was going to be some good risqué stuff? Maybe management had found some new writers and finally decided to replace the usual drivel with some more interesting articles – something along the lines of “KABOOM! How to make a powerful bomb out of everyday bathroom supplies!” Or maybe a piece on how to buy a kidney or beat a drug test or operate a slim jim.

But, alas, the two most prominent features were a recipe for caprese pizzas and an article entitled “Can clipping coupons save you money?” The coupon article concluded with this Pulitzer prize-worthy insight: “Whether clipping coupons is worth it depends on your situation. If your life’s responsibilities are weighing on your wallet, then the time invested is probably worth it. If, however, your time is in shorter supply than your money, you’ll probably find the effort is too consuming to maintain.” I understand that a publication like this, distributed to a diffuse audience with varying tastes and interests, has to be fairly middle of the road. But, at some point, inoffensiveness can itself be so extreme as to actually become offensive. The combination of such milquetoast writing with such a paranoid disclaimer almost made my head explode.

I tried to imagine a situation in which the articles in the newsletter could actually result in the kind of damages contemplated by the disclaimer. Unwitting resident gives the caprese pizza recipe a shot only to have one of her guests be so disgusted with it that she gouges out the hostess’ eyes with her salad fork and then throws herself off the 12th floor balcony? Hostess sues, only to have judge rule that she had implicitly consented to the elegantly worded disclaimer and had thus assumed the risk of any such potential outcome, absolving management company of any liability it may otherwise have had (and that, further, management company was justified in retaining hostess’ security deposit to replace bloodstained / eyeball residue-covered carpet in dining alcove)? Old man who had been using coupons his entire life became so distraught over the thought that doing so may not actually have been the best use of his time that he has nervous breakdown and now requires full-time home care and monitoring?

How is it that we’ve gotten to the point where we have to disclaim all responsibility for offering opinions on coupons and caprese pizzas? Frivolous lawsuits made possible by sometimes quirky tort laws may be part of the explanation. And a general refusal to take any responsibility when things go wrong – a possible byproduct of out of control personal empowerment – must have something to do with it. But, on a more fundamental level, I think we’ve all just become a little too afraid of a good argument. This, I believe, is a uniquely American phenomenon. In moving beyond our oversensitivity to contradictory points of view, I would suggest that we could learn a little something from the French.

Some of the qualities – self-assuredness, confrontativeness and argumentativeness – that make the French so obnoxious are the same qualities that make their culture so vibrant and dynamic. If you’ve ever used the term “freedom fries” seriously, you’re probably more inclined to focus on the obnoxious side of the coin; if you’ve ever heard yourself refer to your college years as a “liberal arts” education (and if you were entirely unemployable when you graduated), you may have a slightly greater appreciation for the vibrant component. Every French citizen is a renowned expert on every subject ever to have been contemplated by mankind, loves to argue and will never hesitate to explain to another person why he is absolutely, unconditionally right. If a French apartment management company ever put out a newsletter, its disclaimer would most likely say something like “the views contained herein are unequivocally correct and anyone who disagrees with them is poorly educated and of ill repute and questionable moral character.” And that’s why it’s fun to be in France. The French thrive on engaging conversations, which can only exist when people are willing to confront and be confronted, and when confrontation is not viewed as a personal assault.

For most Americans, cultural diversity is a point of pride. And, for the most part (there are a lot of obvious exceptions, but that’s a conversation for another time), the acceptance of diversity in the US is real and commendable. But the US brand of multiculturalism is more often based on a live-and-let-live philosophy than on a proclivity to engage one another – to probe, learn, question and, ultimately, understand. The general expectation that others will let us live in whatever way we choose has conditioned us to interpret being questioned as being affronted, which, in turn, completes the loop of non-confrontation and lack of discussion.

I know this isn’t a sentiment that is voiced all that often in the US, but I’d like to suggest that we all try to be a bit more like the French. Discussion is fun! Arguing does not have to be a bad thing! If we were all just a bit more inclined to say frankly what we think, even while in the company of non-like-minded people, and to listen genuinely to what other people think, we might just end up having a jolly ol’ good time. And then, once robust debate became more fundamentally woven into the fabric of our society, maybe just maybe (and don’t get me wrong here; I enjoy a good caprese pizza and clipped coupon as much as the next guy) my apartment newsletter could lose the disclaimer and tackle some just slightly more engaging subjects.


Rich said...

Nice points. But isn't it about a person being totally OK with maybe being wrong? I know you are OK with that notion (clearly), but I am not so sure about the rest of us.

Matt said...

Freedom hater.

David said...

Comme ton ancien prof de français, ton titre m'a attiré. Je suis plutôt de ton avis, Daniel. Rich ne sait pas évidemment qu'un Français ne peut jamais admettre une faute, et la réponse de Matt montre qu'il ne comprend jamais rien. En tout cas, j'enverrai ton blog au prof français de ton ancien correspondant (penpal) pour avoir ses commentaires...

Michael said...

"Inoffensiveness can itself be so extreme as to actually become offensive."

I could not agree more, even though I am slightly inoffended.

bokonon_believer said...

hear, hear