Friday, January 01, 2010

Linguo-Economic Blogging

Two recent posts at my brother Neal’s blog “Literal-Minded” caught my attention because of their connection to economics.

First, Neal links an article on whether “no problem” is an acceptable substitute for “you’re welcome.” Personally, I have no problem with “no problem.” In fact, I think it’s often preferable to the somewhat stuffy “you’re welcome.” But it’s notable that the no-problem opponents’ chief complaint relates to the use of “no problem” in commercial contexts:
Many especially dislike hearing “no problem” in commercial transactions and from folks in customer service jobs, since, as the customer is always right, nothing a customer could ask for could ever be “a problem.” “I assume my business is not a problem,” huffed one complainer on the message boards at the Visual Thesaurus. Others on the Internet have taken the same tack: “Why would it be a problem? It’s her job, isn’t it?” and “It better damn well NOT be a problem, because I just gave you my money.”
When a commercial transaction has just concluded, I have to agree that “no problem” is inappropriate -- but not for the reasons stated. “You’re welcome” would sound just as bad to me as “no problem” because, as I’ve observed before, the appropriate response to “thank you” in this context is “thank you.” Trade is a mutually beneficial transaction, in which both parties do something that benefits the other. In the context of a straight-up favor, on the other hand, the benefits travel in one direction only.

Second, Neal has a column at Visual Thesaurus on a subtle shift in the usage of “choice” by educators. Apparently it has become common practice to use the language of choice when describing behavior -- usually bad behavior -- by students. “Doug chose not to do his homework today,” for instance. Neal describes a movement from “free-choice choose” to “take-responsibility-for-your-own-behavior choose”:
Schoolchildren are told not to behave, but to make good choices, take responsibility for the choices they make, and accept the consequences that come with them. It's not that I didn't hear similar messages when I was in school: My senior English teacher had a poster that read, "There are neither rewards nor punishments; only consequences." But the way I hear that message in schools now, it's usually phrased with choose or choice. On a high school teacher's desk recently, I saw a sign reading, "Let the choices you make today be the choices you can live with tomorrow."
Like Neal, I find this use of "choice" irksome, but I've been struggling to put a finger on why. After all, they're right: kids do make choices, and choices have consequences. Some choices lead to better consequences than others. What's wrong with saying that?

And I don't think it matters that some choices are clearly better than others. When people say, "I had no choice," that's often hyperbole. What they really mean is that some of their options sucked, so they went with the obviously best option. Nothing in the concept of choice requires all options to have similar value.

I think what bothers me about the new usage of "choice" is this: They're using the idea of choice to obscure the difference between natural consequences and deliberately imposed consequences. When you choose not to exercise, a natural consequence is that you'll get fat and have less energy. A deliberately imposed consequence is that your parent will dock your allowance, or your teacher will make you sit in the corner. Neal gets at this distinction when he says, “Only a few students are so cynical as to suggest that a choice between one alternative with a punishment attached and another without one is not really a choice.” I don’t agree that it’s not really a choice -- you really do have the option of taking the unpleasant alternative -- but I agree that an important distinction is being glossed over.

The failure to recognize the natural-vs-imposed distinction is potentially dangerous. It allows, for instance, a drug warrior to claim that the drug war respects freedom of choice. "You choose to take drugs, and you pay the price: going to jail." But just because you still have a choice doesn't mean your freedom of choice has been respected.


Anonymous said...

In non-commercial contexts, there is another distinction which is worth making -- between "I was happy to to this for you" and "I was inconvenienced doing this and you owe me one." "No problem" suggests the first interpretation more strongly than "You're welcome" even if neither is clear.


Henri said...

I don't think a commercial context necessarily implies a transaction taking place. The quote explicitly mentions support, which is a commercial interaction, but not a transaction. I think of pre-sales interactions also, such as calling a business for information. It may still be a good idea for a business to express gratitude in these situations, but I do not think the business owes the (potential) customer thanks when they provide a freebie.

Anonymous said...

"Trade is a mutually beneficial transaction."

Unless, of course, you get screwed in the process. My mother paid for new vinyl windows for her house and to have them installed. Well, they did a crap job installing them as is so common these days, and with the first rain, water began to rot the wood around the windows that were improperly sealed. But the bad job went beyond poor workmanship. When we called the company to complain, they lied and said they never did any work on our house. I believe that this dishonesty should be dealt with the same way as someone who writes bad checks. The offender should be made to pay treble damages or worse. No, I believe they should be put in jail to rot, just like our windows are rotting. It's one thing to be incompetent, it's another to lie, cheat, and steal. They usually go hand in hand, though. Bad (business) people must be dealt with harshly, or this transaction game becomes too costly and painful for the victims.

There were no
"thank yous" expressed in this last phone call to the installer, unless you interpret getting hung up by their lying receptionist as a way of their saying thanks for being had.

Gil said...

I think the "take-responsibility-for-your-own-behavior" choice should be renamed "take-responsibility-for-my-behavior".

The person using it is usually trying to obscure his own artificially imposed consequence and pretending that only the victim was involved in the choices.

Greg N. said...

Where does the Chick-fil-a "my pleasure" response rank on the spectrum?

William H Stoddard said...

The classic example of that sort of imposed "choice" is of course "your money or your life."

Austin Tappen Wright's classic utopian novel Islandia has an example of your argument. One of the major characters, Hytha Nattana, has done something her father disapproves of, and he punishes her for it. When she protests, he argues that she shouldn't do things with bad consequences and that being punished is one of the consequences of her action.

seran said...

So not on point, but I can't help but defend us parents for using the "choice" language when it comes to our kids. I tell my daughter she can either stop hitting the kitty and continue playing with it OR hit the kitty again and not be able to play with it anymore. She CHOOSES which. :-)