On being… meaningless

By Ingrid Sapona
The other day I was thinking about the things I needed to do and I thought “I need to get a haircut”. My very next thought was, “just like Greece”. I know, pretty strange. And yet, I’ll bet some of you reading this probably “get” that the reference to Greece is about Greece’s economic problems – but more on this in a minute.

As soon as I realized my mind was playing this odd game of free association, I got irritated – not with myself, but with the fact that what amounts to gibberish has found its way into my brain and is taking up what limited (if not valuable) space may be left in there! And I know that the haircut metaphor isn’t the only such junk that’s made its way in. A more recent example is the fiscal cliff.

Let’s go back to the Greek “haircut” a minute. As I said, I know it has to do with the Greek fiscal crisis (actually, “fiscal crisis” is another one of those terms). But what exactly does the expression refer to? Honestly, I don’t know. I have some idea but that’s based on how the expression has been used and on what I’ve inferred from how I’ve noticed economists and economic reporters use the expression.

So here’s what my cultivated (as opposed to wild) guess about the expression rests on. First, I know Greece has a huge debt. And, from what I gather, Greek pensions and social benefits seem to have been paid out in relatively generous terms over the years. Since I assume some of Greece’s huge debt goes toward paying those things, I believe the Greek haircut has to do with reducing Greece’s debt. And, extrapolating further, I imagine it relates to Greeks having to accept reduced social benefits, or take a haircut – you know, trim their lifestyle a bit (though I think for many it’s already pretty lean).

Naturally, in sitting down to write this, I decided to do a bit of on-line research about what the expression really means. Well, surprise! My explanation is more wrong than it is right. Yes, the haircut relates to Greece’s debt – but it’s about writing off Greek debt, which is really of more immediate negative consequence to holders of Greek debt (read: Germany), than to Greeks themselves. I realize that with a write-down Greeks would suffer too, but in my attempt to grasp the story behind the colloquial shorthand, I misconstrued quite a lot about who the haircut impacts.

Given my new understanding of the matter, I really think the Greek haircut expression is a completely idiotic way of describing the matter. Indeed, if I were coming up with an expression involving a haircut, I’d say Germans (and other Greek debt holders) are the ones who’ll be getting a haircut. I wouldn’t describe it as a Greek haircut at all. But that’s part of my point.  With pithy expressions some information is bound to get lost.  

So now, the fiscal cliff. Clearly it’s a dangerous thing – anyone who’s seen a Road Runner cartoon knows that things always get worse as you head toward a cliff. In terms of what I know about the fiscal cliff, I know that if the cliff is not avoided, there’ll be automatic tax increases on January 1, 2013 and spending cuts – but I have no idea what my tax rate would increase to, nor do I have a clue as to one single spending cut that would happen. Oh, one other fact I know is that this cliff was created a few years ago as kind of a “poison pill” (oops – there’s another obtuse, if vividly named, concept floating around in my gray matter) included in a law in hopes of encouraging Congress to get its act together and come up with some longer-term solutions before 2013.

It so happens these examples all relate to economic things – that’s because I tend to pay more attention to economic news items than other news. I’m sure there are lots of other areas where clever terms are coined that soon enter into common parlance with most folks not really knowing what they mean.

I understand the desire to use words to paint a picture of something in an effort to grab people’s attention. And I’m all for people paying attention to things that are important. But if anything, those clever catchphrases actually reduce our understanding. They’re like earworms – catchy refrains that people find themselves singing along with even if they don’t know the rest of the song.

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a straw poll

By Ingrid Sapona
Recently I had to choose some artwork (an icon) for a project I’m working on. The illustrator came up with three designs. They were similar, but there were definite differences. One of the icons appealed to me right away. It so happened it was the one on the far left (all three were on one page). The background colour on the one that jumped out at me was also different from the other two – it featured a yellowish-gold palette, the other two featured dark red palettes.

This business of choosing an icon was new to me and because making the choice is a one-time thing, I felt I owed it to myself (and the illustrator), to give it some serious thought. So, I set out to mentally canvass what might be behind my preference.

I wondered, for example: did the one that I liked appeal to me just because it was the first one I saw as my eyes moved from left to right? Or was it because the colour was different? Would I have liked it as much if it had appeared at the far right? Might the illustrator be playing a mind game on me by giving me two that are basically the same colour?

After mulling it over for a few days (ok, over-thinking it for a few days), I decided to do something I don’t usually do: seek other peoples’ opinion. I took a straw poll. I sent a quick e-mail to a few people who have provided me information for the project, as well as to a few friends and family members who know a bit about the project. I asked them which icon they liked best, and if they had any comments. It was an ad hoc group, for sure, but I figured it was a good cross-section of folks.

I was gratified that people responded and moved by the thoughtfulness of their comments. Some folks had very specific comments about the lettering size and fonts, others remarked about the variations between them, pointing to particular elements in each that they liked. Most indicated which they liked best, or they ranked them. When all the responses were in, there really was no clear consensus. (Interestingly, the three people who had provided me information for the project – the folks who know me the least – all liked the same one I did.)

Besides liking the colour of icon number one (the yellowish-gold one), I also liked the design elements of it more than the design elements of the other two. But, since so many people commented that they liked the red colour palette, I asked the illustrator to show me icon number one in the red palette to see how it would look. Well, that did the trick! I liked icon number one in its original colour much better and that’s the one I ended up going with.

A few days after deciding, one of my sisters asked which I picked. When I told her I chose icon number one, she said she thought I was making a mistake. Apparently she didn’t like some of the design elements of icon number one, and she REALLY did not like the colour. I tried to explain my rationale, including all the factors I considered. She listened, but then asked the fateful question: “Why did you ask others if you weren’t going to take their advice?” I told her the opinions were all over the map, but I think she found that hard to believe. We discussed it a bit more and kind of agreed to disagree and then switched to a different topic.

Besides feeling exasperated at having to defend my icon choice, her question about why I bothered asking others their opinion really gave me pause. As I said, that’s not something I usually do – and clearly my sister knows that about me. So why had I this time?

One reason was because I wanted to try to see the icon choices through others’ eyes. I knew what specific things attracted me to icon number one and I was interested in seeing if others might mention those things. I also thought maybe someone would point out something I hadn’t noticed or mention something I hadn’t thought about. And, perhaps most importantly, I asked because I worry that I make too many decisions in a vacuum. It’s an occupational hazard for sole practitioners, I think, and a habit that I’m trying to break.

Looking back, I’m glad I took the straw poll. The comments and opinions offered were very helpful and I took them all to heart. But in the end, the decision was still mine to make. Though my choice may leave some folks thinking that I didn’t value their input, I hope they realize I was asking for their opinion, not advice.

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona