On being ... makeover mad

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s summer makeover time! I know, seems like just yesterday people were getting their spring makeovers. What’s that? You can’t remember the last makeover you had? Well, then you’re overdue! Better call your salon today to see if they can squeeze you in for a fall makeover.

I don’t know when this whole makeover idea started, but it’s certainly become ubiquitous. I first noticed it maybe 15 years ago on daytime t.v. shows where they’d pluck a woman from the audience and hand her over to a hair stylist and makeup artist who, during the course of the show, would magically change the woman’s look.

I’ve always found the whole idea mortifying. Sure, I know the chosen woman has free will (she wasn’t dragged off kicking and screaming -- or at least they never show that part on t.v.) and she could simply say, “No thanks, I’m happy with my current look”. But people never seem to do that. Instead, like pigs to slaughter, they innocently put their “look” in the hands of a total stranger. Sometimes the change is for the better; sometimes -- at least in my eyes -- it isn’t.

The makeover madness revolution then evolved to include people surprising their friends, mothers (for those Mother’s Day makeovers, of course!), and sisters with makeovers. (Am I the only one who’d be offended if my friend thought I needed to be made over?) And let’s not even talk about the makeover shows involving cosmetic surgery -- that’s a whole other thing.

I guess what I’m really trying to understand is why people get excited by the idea of drastically (ok, maybe that’s a bit of a negative word -- how about: dramatically?) changing their look. Actually, I don’t even get why they’d entertain the idea of big, overnight changes in their appearance. Sure, there’s always room for improvement, but makeovers aren’t just about improvement. They’re all about: “Is that really you?” and “I didn’t recognize you!”

But I really don’t understand wholesale changes of appearance in anything that seems fine the way it is. So, it was odd to me when the two newspapers that I subscribe to -- the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star -- both underwent major design makeovers in the past month or so. (I certainly thought they looked fine as they were.)

Hoping to understand what prompted these makeovers, I read with great interest all the articles they ran explaining their reasoning. Interestingly, the first point both papers stressed was that the changes are not just cosmetic; they’re part and parcel of an editorial refocusing on news and analysis. But couldn’t they do that without changing type fonts and page layouts?

Both went to great lengths to explain the design changes, stressing the amount of input they got from focus groups. In fact, on launch day one paper ran a headline proclaiming: “You spoke, we listened.” But I’ve participated in focus groups and I’ll bet participants probably were shown samples of different designs (or design elements) and asked which they liked best -- not whether a makeover was needed at all. (I’m sure that decision had already been made by the paper.)

Both made changes to the type fonts they use for article text. One commissioned its own font that it says is the same size as its previous font, but it sure looks smaller to me. In fact, that paper made wholesale changes in its font choices, going so far as to use different styles in different headings and in different sections of the paper. The rationale given for the font changes was that the new fonts have “more impact” in smaller sizes. Hmmm… Interestingly, they left the masthead pretty much unchanged, though they put back a maple leaf image that they took off in 2000. But, you’ll be happy to know that the leaf is “bolder, more confident” than it used to be. Hmmm…

The other paper went the other way; it increased the text font size and added space between the lines, noting that this increases readability, especially for those who wear bifocals. Good idea, but man is there a lot of white space. (I know, I may be singing a different song in a few years when I end up in bifocals.)

Fortunately, both maintained their broadsheet format but narrowed their pages. (My nightmare was that they’d switch to a tabloid format -- but that would be more like a sex change than a mere makeover -- and, thankfully, they weren’t ready to go that far!) One paper explained the narrowing as a “sleeker format” that (apparently) is being adopted by many of the world’s leading newspapers. The other admitted that there’s a cost savings, as well as a reduction in newsprint consumption, while at the same time making the paper easier to handle.

I’ve mentioned just some of the design changes made as part of the newspaper makeovers. As with any makeover, I’m sure some people love the changes, and some don’t. But what I still have trouble believing is that there was an outcry from readers for transformation or that editorial and design changes needed to be introduced all at once. Of course, I’m sure part of the reason the redesigns weren’t introduced incrementally was because, in true makeover style, part of the desired reaction was “Wow, I didn’t recognize it!”

I know change is a fact of life, but sometimes I think we’ve gotten a little too carried away with this whole makeover thing and change for change’s sake. As for me, frankly, I’m always a bit relieved when old friends still recognize me. So, if any of you might be thinking it’s time you held a little focus group of your own with a view toward a makeover for yours truly, all I can say is: sweeping change isn’t my style.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... worth it

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve written before about the fact that everyone’s got their own sense of whether -- and how much -- they’re willing to open their wallets for things like lattes, flowers, “gourmet greens” (in other words, pre-washed lettuce), etc. Though marketing types might disagree, I don’t think there’s a science to how those of us with a limited amount of disposable income make buying decisions when it comes to life’s little luxuries.

When it comes to spending on “big ticket” items, however, I suspect most people go through a more conscious decision-making process. In other words, for major outlays, whim doesn’t play quite as prominent a role as it does when you’re indulging in a small luxury.

In the business world, the process of gathering information on which to make decisions regarding big expenditures is often called “due diligence”. In a business context, a primary aim of due diligence is to look for objective evidence on which to rationalize a price. The idea of doing due diligence has gained popularity in non-business contexts as well.

Though people often talk about doing their “due diligence” as though it’s a scientific endeavor -- or as though there’s some master checklist of things to consider -- the reality is that the information sought or considered very much depends on the buyer’s particular interests and concerns. For example, before buying a refrigerator you might compare features of different makes or models, you might consider differences in warranties, you might read reports regarding reliability, etc. Eventually, armed with information about all the factors you’ve considered, you’ll make what you believe is a reasoned decision.

Whether you call it due diligence, comparison shopping, or just weighing your options, I’m all for trying to make reasoned decisions when spending large amounts of money. But there are some spending decisions that involve an evaluation of something that’s much harder, if not impossible, to quantify: worth. This fact came into focus for me recently when a total stranger came to me for information in what started as a due diligence exercise, but that quickly turned into a philosophic discussion.

I’m part of the Alumni Admission Council at my alma mater. One of the things we’re asked to do each spring is to make congratulatory calls to local high schoolers who were admitted. The calls are fun because the students are excited about the acceptance. Another reason for calling is to offer to answer any final questions they (or their parents) may have as they make their decision on whether to enroll.

This year, after the initial contact, one of the students e-mailed me some specific questions about financial aid. I responded by giving her the number of someone at the university who could answer her questions and, in closing, I added the perfunctory: “feel free to contact me if you have any other questions”. To my surprise, a few days later I got another e-mail from her asking for more help. She appreciated the information I already provided, but she was wrestling with the decision, as she had been accepted to another fine university that was much less expensive.

Though clearly the cost difference was an issue (to give you some idea of the order of magnitude of the cost difference, we’re talking the price of a case of beer versus the price of a bottle of Dom Pérignon), she said her parents could probably manage it. She said her dilemma stemmed from the fact that her teachers and counselors were all of the view that at the undergraduate level all programs are similar so, in their opinion, it would be a waste of money to go to such an expensive school. She admitted that she really wanted to go to my alma mater because she liked the program she applied to, she liked the university’s location, and she liked the “vibe”. In short, she said, “everything makes it my ultimate ideal university”.

Despite this clear preference, she was struggling with the decision because, in her words, she felt she needed to consider the “practical aspects”. So, she asked me for insights into my experience as an undergrad and she wondered how I thought it might compare to being an undergrad at the other university. She closed her e-mail with this question: “was all the extra money that went into (your) education worth it in the end?”

Clearly, such a soul-searching e-mail deserved a thoughtful response. After suggesting a few other due diligence-type facts she might consider (things like the placement rate for graduates from her program and job opportunities for graduates on her return to Canada), and after stating the obvious, which is that I have no basis for comparing the two, I told her the only thing I could say about the worth of my undergraduate experience was that it enriched me as a person in ways that can’t be measured in dollars.

I felt bad that I wasn’t able to answer her question more directly, so I went out on a limb and offered a bit of unsolicited advice about making difficult decisions. I commended her for the time, effort and thoughtfulness she’s putting into making the decision and I tried to reassure her that by going through the process and coming to a decision, whatever she ultimately chooses will be right. As I explained to her, my experience has always been that once you’ve made a decision you focus your energy on moving forward and you free yourself to find contentment that can help you get the most out of the experience.

I don’t know what decision she made; she never wrote again to let me know and it didn’t seem appropriate for me to contact her to ask. I’ll never know whether my comments made any sense to her, but I suspect they might not have because she’s probably too young to realize that evaluating the worth of something is completely subjective and is best measured only after the passage of time.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... embarrassed

By Ingrid Sapona

On Saturday we launched the boats at my sail club. As usual, I worked on the crew that removes the slings (used by the cranes to hoist the boats off their cradles) once the boat is in the water. We then hold the boat on the dock until the owner happily motors off to his or her slip.

Though launch is usually a happy time (it means that sailing is imminent, even if summer isn’t), the day itself is not without some stress. Though stress is an individual phenomenon, the anxiety around whether your boat motor will start that day is a cause of stress for pretty much all boat owners. I’ve come to this conclusion not as a result of my keen observation of the subtleties of human nature, but because about one-in-three owners mumbles, “I just hope it starts”, as they climb aboard and another one-in-three can be heard mumbling, “Oh thank God it started”, as we cast them off. (The other third keep their thoughts to themselves, but if you watch them closely, you’ll see that as they climb aboard they look to see whether a tow boat is nearby.)

During the afternoon break on Saturday I was chatting with a good friend whose boat was soon to be launched. He had been watching the progress for awhile and he commented on how many boats were being towed. I agreed, noting that the two tow boats certainly seemed to see a lot of action that day.

As luck would have it, when my friend’s boat was launched, his motor wouldn’t start. I was surprised, as just a few days before I had lent him a hand with it as he flushed out the anti-freeze. That day his motor started with no problem at all. But launch day was another matter. After a number of tries he reluctantly accepted the offered tow.

Later, when I saw him by his boat that was safely moored in his slip, he commented about how embarrassed he was to have been towed. I reassured him that no one thought a thing about anyone whose motor didn’t start. Of course, I couldn’t help tease him that he caused the problem because he jinxed his chances by commenting, during the break, about how many boats he had seen being towed.

Though I’m sure he realized I was teasing with that last comment -- or perhaps because I was teasing him -- he came back with: “Well, it was very embarrassing -- and it would be to most people -- it’s just you don’t get embarrassed by stuff”. In some contexts (for example, if that was said by one’s spouse or partner), those would be fighting words. Because I knew he was just trying to get a rise out of me, I didn’t bite. But, the comment started us on a lengthy conversation about the nature of embarrassment that sent us in search of a dictionary (to look up “embarrass”) and that continued over a drink at the bar.

According to the dictionary, embarrassment has to do with feeling self-conscious. That being the case, since a boat motor is separate from one’s self, I argued that I don’t see how its failure to start could possibly cause embarrassment. Eventually he agreed his motor not starting wasn’t about him and therefore his embarrassment was misplaced. That left us to explore a different facet of the concept -- the one he claimed applied to me -- the idea that some people don’t feel embarrassment.

I explained that I took exception to his labeling me as such because I see the self-consciousness that causes embarrassment as a part of one’s social barometer. After all, different situations require different behavior and embarrassment can arise when you realize -- or feel -- your behaviour isn’t within the parameters of whatever is normal in that situation. In other words, the ability to feel embarrassment is useful, so long as it is deserved and so long as it doesn’t become debilitating.

To reinforce my point -- and to make him see that he had no cause for embarrassment that day -- I argued that if you agree that embarrassment is a self-consciousness stemming from behaviour that doesn’t jive with a particular social norm, then, on a day when the Club has two tow boats on hand, most would agree there was a higher than average expectation that motor’s wouldn’t start, so there’s no reason to feel self-conscious when yours doesn’t. Grudgingly he agreed. The rest of the conversation amounted to us sharing stories of times we had suffered embarrassment and I’m sure some of my stories more than convinced him that I’ve felt my share of embarrassment.

Though I suspect his motor not starting on Launch Day 2007 won’t make my friend’s list of life’s most embarrassing moments, his comments made it clear that, however misplaced, his feeling of embarrassment that day was real. I think our conversation left him feeling better, however, as he realized there was no need to feel embarrassed because he was hardly the focus of any particular attention that day.

As for me, our conversation left me with a useful way of assessing the legitimacy of embarrassment: the idea of stepping back and asking yourself whether whatever behaviour you had engaged in was so far outside the social norm as to truly warrant feeling embarrassed. My guess is that most times when we feel embarrassed, we’re not really seeing the situation for what it is.

I know, an embarrassingly simple way of looking at things. But next time you feel embarrassed, why not try asking yourself whether what you said or did really was something for which feeling self-conscious was appropriate, or whether your sense of being the focus of others’ attention was perhaps a tad overblown.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona