Archive for the ‘lies’ category

The ableism of “on the go”

January 19, 2017

What does “on the go” actually mean? Various online dictionaries, all of which seem to be plagiarising each other, say that the phrase has been around since 1843 with the meaning of “in constant motion”.

But we don’t say the moon is “on the go” around the sun. We don’t talk about Robert Fludd’s “on-the-go” machines. These days, “on the go” is a marketing phrase. And by that, I really mean a phrase that people use to tell us stories about ourselves, stories told with the intention of manipulating us.

Some people genuinely believe that products and devices marketed for use “on the go” really are used mainly by people in a hurry. I’ve heard stories about the early days of designing software for smartphones, where the assumption was that the user would be “on the go” (and indeed “out and about” and other such stock phrases denoting busy-busy-busyness), so they would use the phone for quick, simple things and save the complex stuff for “real” computers. As late as February 2015, a research paper about grocery shopping on mobile phones was entitled On the Go: How Mobile Shopping Affects Customer Purchase Behavior.

What’s the reality? Developers now understand what users have known for a long time: that someone accessing the internet via a tablet or smartphone is more likely to be slumped on their sofa or sitting in bed than “out and about”. Which means they want to use their device for the complex things too – maybe it’s the only internet-connected device they can afford, or maybe they spend most of the day in bed and a lighter device is easier to manage. Either way, their reasons for using a tablet or smartphone have bugger-all to do with being “on the go”. Did the researchers of the paper I cited above really believe that people doing a whole grocery shop on their smartphone are putting toilet roll in their online basket while physically dashing from place to place?

It’s a similar thing with e-readers. They’re marketed for their portability, with the implication that otherwise you’d be throwing War and Peace in your bag before hiking the Machu Picchu trail or jumping on a train to Paris. But I do all my e-book reading at home. Other people tell me that they love e-readers because you can make the text bigger, or because you can hold one and turn the pages with the same hand while the other arm holds a baby or rests in a a sling.

Another example: snacks marketed as “on the go” because they don’t require preparation or cutlery. Are they mostly bought and consumed mid-jog? No, they’re mostly bought by people who don’t have access to a kitchen, or who never learned how to cook, or who are too disabled/depressed/tired to prepare food from scratch. The consumers of “on the go” snacks are probably doing just as much sofa-slumping as your average tablet user.

My point here: things marketed as “on-the-go” make life easier because they compensate for missing resources. Sometimes those resources are financial, which is why so many low-income people access the internet through phones and why insecurely housed people eat more convenience food than most. But a lot of the time those resources are about health and what we can broadly call “cognitive resource”: attention, energy, intelligence, knowledge.

But to talk about that would be to talk about poverty and arthritis and poor education and depression. It would be to talk about insecure housing and chronic fatigue syndrome and failing eyesight. So we reframe it all as being about the frantic pace of modern life. That’s why the marketing for TENA Lady pads explains that the typical buyer needs them because she’s “always on the go” and loves to “keep busy”.

Up to a point, it’s nice to look into the marketing mirror and see someone prettier looking back at you. You buy urine-absorbing pads because that’s what sporty women do, and definitely not because you keep leaking urine.  You buy ready-grated cheese because that’s what busy executives do, and definitely not because your hands hurt.

But wouldn’t it be nice to look into that mirror and actually see yourself sometimes? The marketing concept of “on the go” erases people with disabilities and people in challenging but unglamorous circumstances. They’re replaced by imaginary people who can’t stop dashing around. That erasure is, of course, ableist as hell. It also means that we miss out on more interesting, realistic advertising – and the marketers miss out on telling us the real reasons why we should use their products.

Bored on a tram

March 31, 2016

Yesterday I was on a tram and heard a kid trying very hard to annoy his parents. (At least, I assume they were his parents.) He kept singing: “I’m… sooooooo…bored!” It worked. They got annoyed. They both started telling him off in quiet, grumbly voices that undercut the singing.

After a while, presumably as an experiment, he changed the words to the song to: “I’m sooooooo…happy!

His parents didn’t react to the change in words. They both just carried on talking non-stop in low voices about how he was going to be in trouble, how he could stop that nonsense right now, etc, etc.

Hypothesis 1: his parents spotted the lyric change, spotted that he was testing them for a reaction, realised that he was still trying very hard to be irritating despite the superficial change in lyrical subject matter and decided to respond to the intent rather than to the actual words.

Hypothesis 2: they didn’t actually notice the lyric change.

I’ve written about this before: when you think someone has seen through your attempt to deceive and you credit them with insight for ignoring it, but in fact they never even spotted your attempt to deceive in the first place. The example I originally gave was of a mother trying to trick a child, but I actually think it’s way more common the other way round. Because when you’re a kid, even after you’ve got out of the phase of thinking your parents are omniscient, you still think they’re way more observant and interested in the minor things you do/say than they really are.

Mr Soylent illustrates my point

August 21, 2015

I blogged a while back about competitive minimalists and the privilege behind the concept of “living light”. My point was that to live with few possessions you need to engage with and benefit from existing systems, and the competitive minimalists who boast about living light don’t always seem to fully understand that.

Less than a month after I published my post came an example so perfect I initially thought it was a parody. The software engineer Rob Rhinehart, best-known for peddling the meal replacement product Soylent, wrote about how he’s given up electricity. (Spoiler: he has not in fact given up electricity.)

In the storm of internet mockery that followed, someone unearthed an old blog post in which he explains how he described undergoing a challenge to reduce his water consumption. (Top tip: when your clothes get dirty, give them away instead of washing them! Then get new clothes shipped to you from China. This saves both electricity and water!)

It’s tempting to dissect both posts line by line explaining why he’s wrong about nearly everything. But others have already done that. I just wanted to share the links, because this person’s thinking is the perfect example of how you can think you’re “living light” and maybe see yourself as some kind of lean frontiersy hero while in fact you’re:

  • dependent on many things that weren’t invented 100 years ago;
  • dependent on things that most of the world’s population does not have access to;
  • dependent on things that won’t exist or won’t work in the future if everybody carries on like you;
  • generating a carbon footprint the size of a small country;
  • generating a huge amount of non-recyclable and/or harmful waste;
  • consuming a wildly disproportionate share of the earth’s resources.

Our Manic Pixie Dream House

June 5, 2015

My partner and I have decided to sell our house. We’ve followed the conventional wisdom, as set out in a thousand telly programmes, how-to guides and magazines: tidy, declutter, deep-clean, carry out minor repairs, etc, etc. But the reality of getting your house ready for marketing photography or for a viewing is more than that: it’s about trying to hide the fact that the house is currently inhabited by humans with bodies.

To make your house into a desirable object, the evidence of your actual inhabitation must be removed from view. This means (temporarily, thank God) hiding the hundreds of tiny things that make your house a comfortable and convenient place to spend time in: the bins, the spare loo roll, the much-used appliances that normally sit on the worktop, etc. This week, as we shoved the soap-dish into a cupboard and drank straight from the tap to avoid getting any cups dirty, it came to me: selling your house turns you into a manic pixie dream girl.

For anyone who’s not up on the concept, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Twitter account will give you a good idea. She has no interior life of her own and exists as a human reward for the male protagonist. She is quirky, bubbly, attractive and in no way an actual person with needs. In other words, she’s the human equivalent of the house with no shampoo in the shining bathroom, no mugs on the coffee table, no shoes in the porch. Despite the surface quirkiness, she’s a blank canvas for you to start sketching your own character development.

Laurie Penny nails it when she writes that it’s easy for youngish women to get shunted into the manic pixie mould. Are you an attractive-ish female-identified person who can tick three or more qualities off this list?

Creative in your spare time
In a “creative” profession
In a job you dislike but can joke amusingly about
You enjoy an unusual hobby
New to the area/country or in the middle of travelling

If so, I’m guessing that at some point in your life you’ve been mistaken for a manic pixie dream girl  (who does not exist) by some straight guy (who was slightly disappointed when you turned out to be a person). And when I say “at some point in your life”, obviously I mean “at a point in your life when you were young, attractive and probably thin”.

For others, selling your house is the first time you have to pull this crap. “Soap? Shampoo? No way! I just jump into a mountain stream! Possibly I yelp adorably while doing so and then encourage you to jump in as well. Shoes? Hell no, you won’t see any shoes when you come to view my house. I just walk barefoot to my adorable job at the quirky bakery. Or perhaps I don’t actually have feet. Maybe it’s just a cute haze from the ankle down. And before you ask, no, of course I do not eat or go to the toilet or do laundry or wash dishes or file any paperwork.

Meanwhile, the house itself backs you up. “Bins? I have no bins! (Please don’t look behind the hedge.) My floors have never witnessed cat-sick! I always have a vase of fresh flowers! I always smell of something nice like vanilla or coffee but don’t worry, no food or drink is ever prepared here because there are no human bodies here! No human bodies! None! I am here to help with your character development. Maybe you’ll be living in me when you meet your soulmate, quit your job for something better or take up snowboarding!

I haven’t felt this bad about owning a human body since I was a teenager. And – maybe coincidentally, maybe not – my body has recently been going out of its way to remind me that it’s real.

Manic Pixie Dream Girling is work. Hard work. If you’re doing it to sell a house for thousands of pounds: marvellous. If you’re doing it for no reward, because your existence has been framed as somebody else’s reward: terrible.

Read the articles about how to prep your home for viewings. Imagine they’re talking about a person and not a house. I hope the psychic violence behind the Manic Pixie Dream Girl framework jumps out at you like a murderer jumping from behind my super-clean shower curtain.

Everybody is above average

February 2, 2014

Rhys Ifans has inadvertently blown the gaff on celebrity interviews by being so rude that the journalist interviewing him chose not to pretend otherwise.

This is rare. Journalists don’t like admitting when celebs behave in a shitty way. They also don’t like admitting when celebs, or indeed corporations, refuse to answer their questions. Sure, they’ll admit it in the pub, but not in print. It’s a sort of unwritten code; if you admit that someone gave you nothing to work with, others might start to think that you’re not up to the job, because getting something to work with is part of the job even though it’s not within your control. So you do your damnedest to turn that nothing into something.

If there’s a PR on the scene, the “nothing to work with” thing stops being such an issue, because the PR will happily polish quotes, supply extra info and generally do anything to help you write the article (except for answering your questions honestly and promptly, of course). And if the editor has agreed copy approval, the whole article might as well have been written by the PR without the interview taking place. (OK, I exaggerate, but.)

This is why the female subjects of magazine interviews are almost always “refreshingly unstarry” and “down to earth”. This is why they supposedly arrive for the photoshoot looking amazing without make-up. This is why so many of them are “tiny” in real life, with perfect skin. (The men are almost always taller than expected.) This is why they never get called on their bullshit.

My favourite bits are when the celeb tries to rope their (absent) friends into bolstering their down-to-earth status. You want an example? Exhibit A: Gwyneth Paltrow. Apparently she loves cooking so damn much that all her friends contact her when they want a home-cooked meal. They get sick of restaurants and room service, they want some simple home-made food…so they ring Gwyneth Paltrow. Does that sound likely to you?

I mean, even if she wasn’t Gwyneth Paltrow. Have you ever thought “I want some real food” and then phoned a friend asking them to cook a meal for you? (I know some young adults do this with their parents, but I don’t think it’s the same thing.) Flipping the script, have you ever had a friend phone you up asking you to cook them a meal? If not, how would you feel if they did?

Exhibit B: Isla Fisher. She’s just a normal mum and definitely not trying to relaunch her acting career, so her friends all drop their kids off at her house and she ends up in the nursery “surrounded” by kids. Again, does this sound likely?

These are fantasies. Fantasies of being grounded, being a nurturer, being a host, being an earth mother, being an ordinary person, being needed. Ideal Home interviewees (not celebs) fall prey to the same thing on a smaller scale: it’s quite uncanny how every house featured has become the hub of social gatherings, and every couple interviewed has friends and families constantly dropping in for a meal. Life can’t be like that for everyone, or who would be doing the dropping-in? We can’t all be “tiny” with “perfect skin” either, because both “tiny” and “perfect” are relative values.

We all know that magazines are glossy bullshit. But sometimes it’s nice to get a reminder, just in case you’re feeling bad about not looking amazing and feeding the five thousand.

Don’t let it go

July 30, 2013

Recently my partner made a remark to friends which was misinterpreted. Attempts to clarify were washed away in the general tide of people saying “You’re wrong!” I felt a bit got-at but we both decided to let the misunderstanding go; there was more chance of being caught in the oncoming rain than actually having our explanations heard, so we just left. No big deal.

I found out yesterday that the people who did the misinterpreting didn’t let it go. They’ve been talking about it to people who weren’t even there, and the misunderstanding has been set in stone as fact.

I don’t like it because the thing-that-wasn’t-actually-said makes my partner and me appear spoilt and clueless. (We’re not, we’re really not.)

If I wasn’t so upset, I’d be able to laugh at the irony: this comment was worth discussing at length behind our backs, but it somehow wasn’t worth actually understanding in the first place (and my partner’s fresh attempts to clarify have been met with laughing disbelief).

This is why I don’t like “letting things go”. Because every time I let something go, trying to be laid-back, trying to smooth things over, it comes back to bite me. It comes back as the misinterpreted remark suddenly set in stone, or the bad behaviour that gets worse because the other person takes my silence as tacit acceptance, or some other upsetting problem that I suddenly have to fucking deal with anyway.

On bad days, I think the whole concept of “letting it go” is just a rhetorical technique to make the injured party feel bad about standing up for themselves. Whether or not I let something go is my decision, not anybody else’s. I’m the one who’ll have to deal with the consequences of letting it go, whether that’s “Oh, you didn’t insist on a receipt?” or the “People who ignored previous creepy comments also get the following creepy comments…” sleazeball algorithm.

This time, I wish I’d stood there and argued the toss until the heavens opened; better to be judged argumentative and stubborn on accurate grounds than be thought of as stupid and spoilt on completely false grounds. Anyway, it’s confirmed that my general approach is right: try to avoid letting things go.

By the way, I’m back! Did you really think I was going to let this blog go?

Lie-to-word ratios: Moschino Cheap & Chic

May 14, 2013

Moschino Cheap & Chic is a fashion line from the Italian designer Moschino. So that’s the first word taken care of very quickly: it’s definitely not a lie.

But cheap? I’ve just taken a look at the recent collection online. Looks like a belt will set you back around £209.00, a blouse is retailing at £446.00 and a pair of fucking red trousers is £203.00.

Obviously we all have different ideas about what “cheap” means, depending on whether we’re buying, say, an aircraft carrier or a loaf of bread. But I think most people would probably baulk at spending hundreds of pounds on a single item of clothing for everyday wear. Personally, I wouldn’t spend £700 on a blazer unless it had a jetpack attached. So cheap? No.

And chic? Again, this is subjective. You can tell it’s high fashion because the women’s sizes only go up to a 12, thereby excluding the majority of the UK’s female population (the ones who weren’t already excluded by the damn prices, that is). And the men’s range features lots of clothes that would be laughed at in most of the social situations I encounter. But chic? My subjective opinion is no. These clothes are what I’d describe as boggin’. Some are unwearable because they’re transparent; others are super-frumpy yet sleeveless; there are plenty of hideous patterns to make you look like the office joker.

I’m sure there are some people who are capable of looking good in Moschino clothes. But that’s not the test of chic. To me, the test of chic is: do these clothes make you look better than you would otherwise? For example, would you actually look better in a Moschino T-shirt than you would in a completely plain white Primark T-shirt? I’d say the answer, pretty much across the board, is no. I challenge the reader to find three items in the entire spring/summer 2013 collection that they would actually like to wear. I bet it takes you a while. Now remember that you have no idea whether or not it’ll fit you anyway, because you can’t find the size guide. And you don’t know if you can wash it or if you’ll have to shell out for dry cleaning, because they don’t bother to give you that information; surely anyone who can afford it has servants. Oh, and that reminds me: you can’t afford it anyway, can you?

Ignoring the ampersand, Moschino Cheap & Chic comes out as three words, two lies. A lie-to-word ratio of 2:3.

Tricks, string and things

March 19, 2013

One of Zach’s favourite food was string. I tried ripping up celery to make it look like string. But he just ignored it.

When I substituted paper with rice paper, he gave it a go, but quickly returned to the pages of my magazine.

He also loved picking up little bits from the carpet and eating them. So I scattered tiny seeds and nuts all over the floor, almost as if I was feeding the birds.

Again, Zach didn’t fall for my tricks. He knew exactly what he wanted.

“You’re a smart cookie,” I had to concede with a smile.

Extract from Take a Break Winter 2013.

The context is a mum talking about her three-year-old son, who has both autism and pica. Obviously, he’s not “seeing through her tricks”. He almost certainly doesn’t even know she’s trying to trick him. He’s just, y’know, eating string and magazines and bits of stuff off the carpet. He eats what he wants to eat and he’s indifferent to her attempts to change that.

I’ve thought for a long time that there should be a word or a phrase to describe the times when you think someone has seen through your tricks, but in reality they haven’t even noticed your tricks and are ploughing on oblivious.

I suppose it’s an odd form of self-flattery to think that someone has seen through your clever ruse. Attempting a trick and then having that trick unmasked represents a dialogue, however distorted, with the person you’re trying to trick. But if they’ve ignored your attempt completely, it really was for nothing. That’s partly why I found this Take a Break story so sad.

Lying is OK if you’re early

March 6, 2013

Last week I was getting a lift to a funeral with some colleagues. I stayed with them the night before. We’d agreed a departure time of 8:30am a few days beforehand. The night before, there was some discussion about whether 8:30am was early enough, but we decided that it was.

The next morning, there was a bang on my bedroom door. We were leaving early. Everybody rushed for the shower at once. By 7:30am the person who’d changed the plan was sitting in the car, visibly fuming at the delay. We finally left at 7:45am with dire warnings of how we were going to miss the funeral.

We arrived in town nearly an hour early for the funeral, but at least we got to go to a cafe and have breakfast. The person who’d moved the times forward wouldn’t eat anything. He was still cross about our “lateness” in leaving and kept saying “We were lucky with the traffic, that’s all.”

The following day I’d arranged for a friend to drop something off at my house. We agreed 6pm. She arrived just after 5pm when I was buried in work and the house looked like a tip.

This morning I had a work phone call scheduled for 11am. At 10am I started making notes for the call, but he rang less than five minutes later. I think I would have made a better contribution if I’d been better prepared, but I felt embarrassed about admitting I wasn’t ready for the call.

Why does being early make it OK to be unreliable? In my worldview, if you set a time you should do your best to stick to it. If you manage to be earlier than that time, you’re not “winning” in any way; you’re just inconveniencing other people and being rude and dishonest into the bargain.

I’m not talking about “early” in the sense of getting your essay handed in early, or finishing your day’s work early. If you achieve something ahead of schedule, good for you (although don’t fall into the trap of thinking it increases the work’s intrinsic value). I’m talking about when you agree a time for a departure, a meeting, a phone call or whatever with someone else, then ignore the agreed time in favour of your own, earlier time. It happens to me so often that I’ve nicknamed it the “early-bird bait-and-switch” but I’ve only been moved to blog about it now because it’s happened to me three times in less than a week.

Maybe I should have prepared for today’s phone call sooner. But where do you draw the line? If I “should” be prepared for an 11am call by 10am just in case the other person rings an hour early, should I also be prepared at 9am? 8am? 7am? 11pm the previous night?

It all gets to me because I try so damn hard to be reliable, to stick to arrangements, to not fuck up too much. I use productivity systems and automated reminders, because I’m so terrified of dropping a ball. So of course it winds me up when I’m finishing a phone call and then hear the alarm I set to remind me that the call is about to start. Or when the alarm I set to wake me up goes off several miles into a journey. If you suddenly change our plan by being super-early, my ability to stick to that plan has been stolen from me by your inconsiderate behaviour. You are transforming me from a calm, reliable person into a flustered flake with wet hair, a messy house and no notes. And of course I’m going to hate you for that.

We have this wonderful thing called consensus reality, where (almost) everybody can agree what time it’s supposed to be on different parts of the planet. It’s an amazing tool for planning things that involve more than one person. But when we have a cultural assumption that it’s OK to start things earlier than agreed, the point of agreeing a time is lost and we lose the value of one of the most basic achievements of human civilisation.

(Don’t get me wrong – late is rude and annoying too. And vaguely ethno-cultural excuses like “Indian timings” drive me crackers.)

I asked just now where we should draw the line. Why not just have a consensus to take agreed times literally? So 2pm means 2pm and not 1:30pm or 2:30pm and not 1pm or 3pm either.  God knows, sticking to an agreed time is hard enough even when you’re trying your best. I’m often guilty of unintended earliness (and plenty of unintended lateness) myself. People are always going to miss buses, have childcare emergencies, get their dates mixed up, allow too much or too little time for the journey and so on.

But a lot of irritating, stressful earliness isn’t caused by mistakes – it’s caused by people thinking they have cultural approval to abruptly move the goalposts. We need to withdraw that approval so we can start taking agreed times literally again.

In the car on the way to the funeral, we made a point of saying “Oh, look, it’s 8:30am. We should be setting off round about now!” and giving the early-bird meaningful looks. I think that’s the way forward. Don’t politely wave aside the agreed time as you would if someone was late or early through no fault of their own. Push back. Argue for a consensus reality that makes sense.

Lie-to-word ratios: Men with Pens

February 1, 2013

As well as collecting crap acronyms, I also collect examples of phrases with a high lie-to-word ratio.

I’ve been interested in the idea since reading a New Yorker profile of George Meyer many years ago (full article only available to subscribers, sorry). He gave the example of Country Crock:

“It’s not from the country; there is no crock. Two words, two lies.”

(Obviously, if you’re ploughing the rich linguistic seam of oddly-named butter substitutes, the UK’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter is practically a PhD thesis in a tub, but let’s not go there.)

Since I collect them in real life, I might as well start putting examples on this blog. Today’s example is Men with Pens. For many years, this copywriting agency bigged up its macho, no-nonsense credentials and became very successful indeed. Business owner James Chartrand attracted criticism for sexist comments, but basically all was well. Until December 2009, when Chartrand outed herself as a woman.

In this example, the word “men” is actually two lies. She’s not male and she’s not plural (although she gave a very convincing impression of being a whole agency with several staff members). So the first word is two lies.

I assume there’s debate in the world of lie-to-word collectors about whether prepositions count. Should the “with” count as a word when you’re working out the ratio? I’m still not sure about this one myself.

As for the “pens” bit… well, it’s a metaphor, innit? Nobody literally expects them to do their work with pens rather than keyboards. And anyway, James Chartrand probably does own multiple pens. She can afford it. So I think she gets a pass on that one.

So Men with Pens comes out as three words, two lies. A lie-to-word ratio of 2:3.