On being … loyal

By Ingrid Sapona

Language evolves and the meanings of words change. Take the word cool, for example. Early on it related to temperature. At some point it came to mean calm, self-controlled, and even lacking in friendliness. And of course, since the mid-20th century it’s become a synonym for very good, fashionable, and hip.

As someone who makes a living as a wordsmith, I try to stay on top of evolving definitions. With that in mind, I looked up the word loyal, because I’m sure its meaning has changed. I was surprised to see that Merriam-Webster.com still defines it as: “having or showing complete and constant support for someone or something”.

Recent interactions I’ve had with a few companies I’ve done business with for many years have convinced me that the definition of loyal has come to mean something akin to sucker. The first hint came in a call I made to the circulation department of the newspaper I subscribe to. One of my biggest pleasures is starting the day with a hot cup of coffee and the morning paper and I’ve had seven-day home delivery for ages.

A few years ago I was reviewing my monthly expenses with a view toward trimming them. I was surprised to realize that I was paying nearly $500/year for the newspaper. Because I couldn’t see myself giving up the paper completely, I phoned to find out how much I’d save if I just got Monday-Friday delivery. The customer service person looked up my account and offered me a good deal for six months. She also said that at the end of that period I should phone again and ask about the best rate. Happy to keep the same service at reduced rates, I agreed and dutifully made note to call again in six months.

Since then, whenever I notice on my credit card statement that the cost for the paper seems to have gone up, I phone and ask for the best rate and they always have some deal for me. In May, however, when I phoned they said they aren’t offering any deals for current subscribers. When I mentioned that they always have, I was told now they only give deals after three months of service at the regular rate and since I had just come off a deal, I was not eligible for any other deals for three months, at which time I could call back and grovel. (Ok, grovel is my word, she said I could ask…)

I’ve subscribed for a long time and have played their game of calling for the best rate – instead of just being given it automatically (out of, say, respect and loyalty?) – for quite some time. Irritated, I cancelled the subscription. The customer service rep said she understood and she explained that because they charged in advance, I’d continue getting the paper until July 1. So that was that. I guess the newspaper business is doing well enough that they don’t need me…

Then, two weeks later I got a call from an independent subscription service that works for the newspaper. Apparently they were notified that I cancelled my subscription and they offered me a good price if I were to continue subscribing. I asked why the customer service rep at the paper couldn’t offer me a deal and I was told that’s just the way it works. I took the deal and she said that when it’s about to expire (in six months), she’d phone again with whatever deal is available at that point. Though irritated, I took the deal.

Then last week I was shocked when I saw on my phone/cable/internet bill that the cost of my phone service had gone up by 22.5% in one month (that’s before taxes). Over the past few months I’ve gotten notification that different services would be going up by a dollar or two, but to have this kind of jump in the phone charges seemed excessive, so I called to inquire.

The customer service rep explained that a promotion I had expired. Having dealt with the company for a long time, I knew enough to ask about getting the promotion reinstated. As expected, the customer service person didn’t have authority and so I had to specifically ask to be connected with their “loyalty department”.

I first learned about this special department a few years ago when I called about a mysterious $1 charge. After complaining about it I was put through to someone at the loyalty department. After explaining my frustration, the loyalty fellow offered to review my bill and usage to see what he could do. By the end of the call he had reduced my overall costs by over 30%, and increased the amount of band width on my internet service at no cost. Astonishing, I know! At the same time, it irked me that I had to challenge a charge in order for them to show they value my loyalty.

As a result of my most recent call about the 22.5% increase, the loyalty department offered a small adjustment, which was better than nothing. But after hanging up, I was angry – mostly with myself for feeling like a sucker for being loyal rather than shopping around for a better deal from some other company.

So, these incidents make it obvious that the definition of loyalty is changing. And, as a result, I suppose our behaviour as consumers has to change too. I guess special treatment is now awarded only to customers who demand it and who are willing to walk away from companies they’ve done business with for years. I guess words aren’t the only things that evolve – consumer attitudes have to too.

So, I wonder if my new phone provider will be any different. Probably not, but I’ll enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts!

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a big pineapple

By Ingrid Sapona

For the past couple weeks now, here in Toronto you can’t go anywhere (no, I’m not talking about the combination of gridlock and road work that’s gripped the City for some time) without seeing some flag or symbol proudly displayed on a car, bike, hat, or you name it. And, if you’re like me, you’d probably recognize one or two of the symbolic references, but certainly not all of them.

Yes, part of this surge in displays of symbols around Toronto relates to the World Cup. I know that World Cup fever is quite wide-spread, but Toronto’s size (now the 4th largest city in North America) and diversity means that we have large populations of people from many of the nations in the Cup.

I distinctly remember the proliferation of car flags four years ago because my sister and a friend of hers were here and they were astounded by how many flags were – pardon the pun – foreign to them. Of course, I was almost as clueless until the Toronto Star did an article that identified the flags. I haven’t seen such a guide for this Cup, but I’m hoping that maybe now that we’re into the knockout round they’ll print one.

In the run-up to this year’s tournament, I was looking forward to seeing cars festooned with flags and I was a bit disappointed with how few there were initially. Then, just before the first round I noticed that for $3 you could pick one up at the grocery store. (My neighborhood store had flags from four countries – I wonder if the choices varied in other parts of the City.) After that, they started appearing on cars everywhere.

Another flag that’s on display everywhere in Toronto this week is the Rainbow Flag, the symbol for Pride, which, when capitalized like that, also has a special meaning that some folks may not be familiar with. “Pride” events, according to InterPride’s website, are events such as parades, marches, rallies, festivals, arts festivals, cultural activities, events and other activities “organized for people identifying as Lesbian, Gay Men, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and/or other emerging sexual identities”.

Toronto, which has had an annual Pride festival for over 30 years, is hosting WorldPride 2014 (also known as WP14TO – for those who like abbreviations). The 10-day event is the fourth such event ever held and the first one in North America and the City is – pardon the pun – pretty proud.

Major international events like the World Cup and WorldPride always generate a flurry of newspaper articles and even if I’m not particularly interested in the event itself, there’s usually some items that catch my eye. A few of the Pride-related stories I found interesting explained the history and symbolism of the rainbow flag and the abbreviation LGBTTIQQ2SA.

The symbolism of the rainbow seemed obvious, but I didn’t know that each colour represents something specific. (For the uninformed – like me – here you go: Red: life; Orange: healing; Yellow: sunlight; Green: nature; Blue: serenty/harmony; Violet: spirit. And, in case you’re wondering what happened to Hot Pink (sexuality) and Turquoise (magic/art) they’ve been dropped – not for any symbolic reason – but because they’re difficult colours to manufacture.) One other Pride flag-related tidbit that was mentioned is that before the rainbow flag the symbol for gay pride and the gay rights movement was a pink triangle. Apparently we have Harvey Milk to thank for moving away from that symbol, which was a Nazi concentration camp badge to identify homosexual prisoners. (Thank you Harvey – that thought is just too grim for me…)

As for what LGBTTIQQ2SA stands for, that was quite new to me. I thought I was pretty current knowing that LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bi, and transgendered. But, most news stories used this long abbreviation and the WP14TO website explains that “LGBTTIQQ2SA is an abbreviation used to represent a broad array of identities such as, but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited, and allies.”

I have to admit, I’m still not clear on all that (the two Qs are the most confusing to me). I think it’ll be interesting to see – over time – whether that abbreviation sticks. I think that, just as the rainbow flag’s been paired down to six colours, something less than 11 letters can come to represent the members of the Pride community. (I understand that they’re trying to be inclusive – indeed, I’d say that the abbreviation even covers me – I fall into the allies group. But it seems to me that by being so specific, you run the risk of alienating others.)

In reflecting on all the symbols people are flaunting here in Toronto this month, I’ve been feeling kind of out of it. Not being the flag waving type, I needed to find something else that I could display. Fortunately, on my most recent trip to the grocery store I found just the thing: a nice big pineapple. So, I picked one out and I’ve put it on prominent display in my kitchen window. What could be more appropriate and welcoming than the time-honoured symbol of hospitality? Mind you, it may not last long – I’ve got friends coming over and I’m planning on serving pineapple mojitos…

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … surprised?

By Ingrid Sapona

We just had a provincial election in Ontario and come October we’ll have a mayoral election here in Toronto. (You may have heard of our mayor – he’s kind of famous, er, infamous. But that’s a whole other story and since I can’t see myself writing  a column called On being … a crack cocaine user – nor can I imagine any of my readers relating to that topic – rest assured, you’ll see no further mention of our mayor here.)

The provincial election was called when the Liberal Party, which had governed since 2011 as a minority, failed to get support from the opposition for the 2014 budget. As you might expect, in the 35-day run-up to the election there was a heck of a lot of political polling going on. I got at least three calls myself, asking who I was likely to vote for. (Yes, you read that right – Ontario provincial election campaigns are limited to five to six weeks – eat your heart out American readers!) On the eve of the election, the polls indicated the race was going to be close. Well, it wasn’t. The Liberals won a solid majority.

The misleading pre-election polling here in Ontario was noteworthy locally, but it paled by comparison to the erroneous pre-election poll predictions elsewhere. In the premier race in British Columbia last summer, for example, pollsters where shocked when the party that was supposed to win by a landslide lost – by a lot! And of course, just this week there was the “surprise” loss by Eric Cantor in the Virginia Republican primary, despite the fact that his internal polls had him ahead by over 30 percentage points.

While I can understand that politicians are anxious to get some indication of how much support they might get in an election, surely they must realize the risks involved in taking the pre-election polls to heart. Sure, pollsters take a lot of factors into account, adjusting for all sorts of demographic factors, like age, wealth, education, location, and so on. And of course, all polls have that asterisk that provides the mysterious margin of error number, which is often so broad as to make the spread between the candidates virtually zero, but never mind.

If you ask me, if there are any lessons to be learned from the numerous pre-election polling misreads, it’s that candidates who put any stock in them do so at their own risk. If polls show you’re a shoo-in (like they did with Cantor), or even just in the lead, you run the risk of being complacent. And if you’re behind in the polls, you run the risk of feeling downtrodden, which makes it even harder to put your best foot forward, and I imagine you run the risk of people being reluctant to support someone others think will lose.

Personally, I love answering political polls, especially the super-efficient automated ones. I don’t mind saying what candidate I will vote for, and I always tell the truth. The way I see it, if the poll is being paid for by the candidate (or party) I support, I’m happy to have them know that they have my support. And, if the poll is sponsored by a party or group that I don’t like, I don’t mind taking a bit of the wind out of their sails. Mind you, my willingness to even respond to such polls is founded on the fact that, unlike many other choices that I have a hard time making, when it comes to politics, I’m never a fence sitter.

But, I think the problem with pre-election polls has to do with a fundamental difference between responding to such a poll and casting a ballot. When someone responds in a pre-election poll, they do so knowing they have nothing truly at stake. Candidates and the pollsters they hire seem to lose sight of this fact. Of course, I guess that’s human nature too, as they, arguably, do have something at stake with such polls. So, until pollsters figure out a way to factor in some of the whims of human nature, I’ll find it hard to take polls too seriously.

Anyway, that’s how I’d explain why pre-election polling has let to so many surprises. What’s your take on it? (I’m just asking…)

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … compared and contrasted

By Ingrid Sapona

Remember those assignments in junior high school English class where you had to write an essay “comparing and contrasting” two characters in a story? I always thought that was kind of a lame assignment – really just a way of getting us to talk about a book. But looking back, I’d have to say I’ve made more use of the compare and contrast exercises in my life than pretty much anything else we did in junior high. (Maybe others make day-to-day use of things like calculating the area of a trapezoid or lighting a Bunsen burner, who knows.)

Of course, the compare and contrast I find myself doing doesn’t involve fictional characters – it involves comparing myself to others. I’m not talking about a Keeping Up with the Joneses type of comparison in terms of wealth and power. I gave that up long ago – even before America elected a president that’s younger than me! I’m talking more about behaviours or skills that other people I meet have that seem to contribute to their success or happiness.

Usually my compare and contrast exercise starts off with me observing the other person’s behavior in a series of situations, and then realizing that I admire their way of being, or approach to things. My initial appreciation for them is usually pretty general, but if I think they’ve got a “winning” way, then I take a closer look and try to figure out some of the specific things they do. (Yes, I’m intentionally avoiding describing them as a “success” because that might be misinterpreted as being wealthy, famous, or powerful. Anyway, now that you know what I mean, from here on, if I use successful, please remember that I mean something other than money, power, or fame.)

Sometimes the things that seem to contribute to their success are innate qualities – like an ability to relate to people, or a particular artistic talent. But many times their successful behavior relates to things I’m capable of doing, but that I don’t do, or don’t do enough of. It’s probably easiest to explain through an example.

Angela (not her real name) is a career consultant I’ve gotten to know the past few years. Like me, she’s in business for herself. Angela has a lot going for her. One of the things I admire most about her is the extent to which she seems up on concepts and trends that are hot in management circles. She often refers to authors and marketing or human resources gurus who have coined certain phrases that are popular in business circles. She has a knack for describing activities and actions in a way that seems straight off the pages of the Harvard Business Review. By doing this, she seems cutting edge and current, which is valuable in today’s business world. Though I pay attention to management terminology and lingo, I don’t tend to use it (and when I do, I usually feel like a phony).

Often, the end result of my compare and contrast exercise is that I find myself lacking. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it often motivates me to try to improve in whatever way I feel I’m lacking. Of course, sometimes it’s just another thing that I use to beat myself up about…

But then there are times when the exercise helps me see – and take stock in – my own strengths. Indeed, it happened just the other day in an interaction I had with Angela. She had e-mailed a marketing brochure about a service she was offering and based on the title, I determined it wasn’t something I was interested in so I deleted it. A few days later she wrote to a number of us and specifically asked for input on the brochure. It seems that after sending it out she didn’t get any response and so she realized that somehow she missed the mark.

The grace she exhibited in her follow-up e-mail asking for feedback was yet another example of why I think so much of Angela and such a sincere request deserved a thoughtful response. As soon as I re-read the title of the brochure, I remembered why I had so quickly deleted it. The title indicated the service related to developing a personal brand, and brand is a concept I can’t relate to, so I didn’t even read on. This time, however, I read more and I soon realized that the title was misleading and some of the key information was buried far down in the text. But, for me, the main problem was her injection of business buzz words in what I think most readers would see as a non-business context.

Putting together my comments to Angela about the brochure provided me with a big Ah-Ha. I realized that the previous comparison I made of my fluency with business lingo to Angela’s fluency was only half the standard compare and contrast analysis. Though I do fall short in that comparison, by contrast, my professional focus has always been on using plain language, which goes a long way toward explaining why it’s such a struggle for me to use business jargon.

So maybe those junior high school English teachers were on to something. There’s lots to be learned from those compare and contrast exercises – just be sure you remember to do both parts.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … accused of being stubborn

By Ingrid Sapona

The past few years a friend and I have participated in a team sport and have been on the same team. Our player-coach headed two teams: the Red Team, which played in the Monday league, and the Blue Team, which played in the Wednesday league. We were on the Red Team. This year the sport’s organizers decided to only have games on Thursdays. By way of e-mail, earlier this spring the coach asked us all (members of both teams) what we wanted to do, given this change.

Because my friend has another regular social engagement, she’s unavailable on Thursdays. I confided to my friend that I suspected that if the members of the Blue Team are all available on Thursdays, the coach would go with the Blue Team. My rationale was that there’s no point in splitting the teams to form a new one for Thursday nights, if one of the teams could make the switch. That’s exactly how it panned out and about a month ago the coach told us she decided to go with the Blue Team.

I completely understood (and expected) the decision and was fine with it. Indeed, I was even a bit relieved because last season there were many nights I came home after a game feeling rather beat up. After the decision was made, I shared my mild relief with my friend. Though she was less content with the decision, she understood it too, especially given her unavailability on Thursdays. After that, my friend and I talked about the fact that it might be fun to get together and do other things on Monday nights. We also agreed that if we found we really missed not playing, on any given Monday we could try to sub on other teams who might be shorthanded.

Well, just as the season was to begin, we got word that the organizers decided to go back to the old format of two leagues – one on Mondays and one on Thursdays. So, our coach e-mailed us to ask if we wanted to play on Mondays, starting in the second week of the season. Before either one of us responded to the coach, we discussed it.

Unlike my friend, who was keen to commit to playing on Mondays, I was torn. I had mentally adjusted to having the season off and I was looking forward to being able to schedule other activities on Monday nights. My friend, who wanted the two of us to commit to the team, pointed out that during the course of the season there would likely be games called off due to bad weather, so we could do something on those evenings. It was clear she wanted me to agree to play and she was irritated that I wasn’t jumping at the idea.

I then suggested a possible compromise: since the season is broken into three series, perhaps we could sit out the first series (since it was very short notice) but we could offer to play in the second and third series, if the coach wants us. Of course, as I pointed out to my friend, the risk with this “solution” is that players from the Blue Team might be willing to play on Mondays and Thursdays, in which case we may well not be needed later in the season. That was a risk I was willing to take.

Though, at first, she seemed to like my idea, it soon became clear my friend didn’t want to take that chance – she wanted to commit to the whole season. We went back and forth a few more times and when it didn’t seem we’d reach agreement, I tried to put an end to the discussion by saying we’re both entitled to our own decision. Frustrated, she then accused me of being inflexible and stubborn. The comment stung and my initial reaction was to refute the labels. But, I could understand why my not wanting to continue discussing it might have seemed stubborn to her and I didn’t think she said it to hurt me.

Instead, I explained the way I see it, which is that our disagreement really boils down to the fact that each of us simply wants to have it our way, which I think is simple human nature. The coach wanted to field as cohesive a team as she could, which is why she decided to go with the Blue Team initially. My friend wanted to be able to play on the night she was free. And I wanted to be able to sit out part of the season. Unfortunately, as my friend’s comment made it clear, it’s also human nature to get upset when you realize that the end result of everyone wanting to have it their way is that chances are no one will get 100% of what they want. But, the way I see it – even if holding fast to your decision makes you seem stubborn and ultimately means you only get some of what you want, that’s still better than agreeing to do something you don’t want to do.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona