Caveat Emptor No.2

Asking the Right Questions

The secret of success in the 21st century is not going to be honesty, integrity, hard work or a good education, any of those old, bygone chestnuts that are trotted out by people who are stuck in a 20th century groove. No, the trick in the 21st Century is to have the imagination and patience to ask all the right questions.

Specialization is now so intensive that we can scarcely communicate through the good old English tongue any more. Yes, it is an umbrella language, a tenuous link between people between, um like, those whose maximum vocabulary is three thousand awesome words, a vehicle for the more thorough misunderstanding between men and men, men and women. So few people born in Britain can speak the language without inserting the f**k word three times a sentence that it is said that Urdu is set to become the preferred tongue of the college-educated population north of Birmingham.

Real communication goes on between specialists in the same specialism- - the computer geeks, for instance, with their ever-burgeoning vocabulary that is incomprehensible to ordinary people. The following is taken at random from my own blog support discussion group (apologies to mariogarcia, whoever you are, who posted this).

The error is about the utf-8 new functions for the DB. I know because I have modified (to include UTF-8 better support using this diff ) wordpress 2.1 and svn version of wordpress 2.2 and i have tried last svn version of wordpress 2.3 and i have always the same error. Sidebar Widgets should create a major compatible tables with UTF-8....

Excuse me?

Then, of course, there is the military, which spends more time making up acronyms than planning wars. The building trade has its own argot, the medical profession its techno-speak, financiers their jargon, lawyers their cant, and officials their officialese. Sports journalists stopped speaking the native tongue in 1933, and actors on popular reality TV shows avoid uttering words of more than one syllable. (How do the producers explain the "syllable" to them, one wonders?)

The problem with communication between specialists and the public centres around the word "empathy". There is a chronic lack of ability to share the feelings of others, to put yourself in the shoes of the person to whom you are speaking. "I'm making it quite clear, "you can almost hear him saying," What’s with this guy?" He cannot understand that the rest of us live in a different world, where his jargon sounds like Mongolian.

So what questions should be asked? The answers is, all of them.

Here is a typical selection of questions that every shopper should ask when buying ham in a supermarket. First, try to find someone whose native language is English. (Come to think of it, you might get better informed answers from someone from the Ukraine):

- What is the difference between ham and gammon?

- What is the difference between honey-cured and beetroot-and-cannabis flavoured ham?

- You advertise ham produced from pork legs. What happens to the rest of the pig?

- Can you supply ham produced from the wiggly tail?

- Is there a difference between ham reared in Leicestershire and ham produced in Wiltshire? Or is it just a matter of the accent of the porkers?

- What do the words "outdoor bred" mean?

- How much room do the piggies have to move around?

- Can they go into a sty at night? (Do they enjoy the sky at night?)

- Do they enjoy ordinary family values, or are they artificially ... .you know.

- Why is ham breaded and do they use brown, whole-grain bread without additives?

- Why do they put sugar in the ham?

- How much sugar?

- Is it real or artificial sweetener?

- Is it Cuban cane sugar? If it is, as a Cuban American I can't eat it.

- Why do producers put water in their ham? (we know the answer but just want to hear what you say)

- Do you know whether it is filtered water or whether it comes straight out of the River Trent just below the coal-fired generating station?

- How do English and Danish bacon differ? Again, is it just the accents of the pigs?

- Is the difference between Danish ham and Italian prosciutto anything to do with love?

- What is the salt content in English bacon, and is it natural rock salt?

- Which preservatives are used?

- Are the preservatives carcinogenic, or just bad for you?

- What are the effects on human beings of sodium nitrate?

- The ham you have is too finely sliced. Can I get it cut thicker?

- The ham you have is too thickly sliced. Can I get it paper-thin?

- I want to make a giant sandwich for Presidents Day. Can I get bigger slices?

And this is just the start!

Thirty other products later, and the shopper will have had a full course in food production and know precisely what to avoid in future. That is, if she can find anyone who knows anything about the food they are selling.

It isn't necessarily the case that advertisements, packaging or product information are deliberately misleading. The designers just cannot imagine how there could possibly be a problem. "I know how to do it. If I can do it, anyone can." Not true. Whole steps are omitted in assembly instructions, a computer gismo has no instructions at all. Well, caveat emptor, as the Romans used to say, but then they sowed seed by hand and drove bullock carts.