On January 10, 1948, my father-in-law, Jimmy Ryan, wrote to his sister, Helen. Here is a belated meditation about it (JD to Barbara Ryan, thanking her for sharing the letter via email):

Thanks, Barbara. What strikes me is how simple yet sincere the letter is. It’s a ‘day in the life of’ kind of letter, with all the mundane-isms you might find in an email today. But of course in 1948 they were still 40 years before mainstream email usage. I felt sad at the end, when he writes, I have to go “and get along about my work.” It made me wish he had lingered there a bit longer, said a little more, shared one more piece of information that would tell me more about him. It reminded me of how strangely short our lives are, and that we don’t realize that when we are absorbed by our work and just living life. I like the expression, Live every day as though it was your last,” because it feels like if you do that, then you will have few regrets. It is a really nice letter from a brother to his sister. 

Thanks for sharing.
JD
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Physician in residence. Entrepreneur in residence. Professor in residence.

Why not, Customer in Residence? moser

Today, company and product visionaries persuasively argue that developing a close relationship with customers–being interested in, and genuinely understanding customers’ experiences before, during, and after their interactions with your product/service/employees–is either a source of competitive advantage or the source of a fatal flaw in the business.

From Amazon to Zappos (go figure the one acquired the other), and from USAA to that rascally Gecko, successful businesses (online and/or BnM) make a strong case for putting customers first, last, and in between.

Many companies manage to build a deep customer-first element into the core of their brands, and guess what? This really resonates with customers.

Not sure about that? Have a look at the new breed of customer service evaluations, and their impact on customers’ shopping decisions.

Customer programs aren’t new, but that doesn’t mean they’re not relevant. Quite the opposite. Consider:

At eBay in the early 2000s we ran the Voices program, where we invited buyers/sellers to eBay’s HQ to meet eBay employees and other community members, take a campus tour, and talk about features and issues important to the community. It was an instant hit with die-hard Community members who wanted their voices heard. And, a very large, rapidly expanding company was able to step outside its view of the world and learn from its customers.

More recently, furniture designer/craftsmen, Thos. Moser (http://www.thosmoser.com), launched a week-long CIR program, which they run 8 times a year. Moser’s furniture is designed, hand-crafted, and functional, and it generally appeals to furniture “collectors,” though I’m sure its broadly appealing designs are the inspiration for knock-offs.

At Moser, furniture-enthusiast customers apply for a spot in the Moser program via the website, and Moser selects customers on a first-come basis. Participants travel to Maine and work alongside a master craftsman while they build their own piece of furniture, which they crate up and take home with them at the end of the week.

The Moser program is a paid one (cost to customers ranges from $6K to $14K, and pretty much all-inclusive), but not all CIR programs are. You can also give away a free spot from time to time.

win

While all CIR programs have some form of associated cost to the company (employees’ time, cost to bring in customers, etc.), the benefits may actually be unlimited, long-lasting, and far-reaching:

  • They’re your customers. Get to know them! Who knows, they may want to work for you some day. And if you don’t, your customers may become someone else’s.
  • Think about cost to acquire and retain. Demonstrate your interest in, and commitment to them, and your customers will probably come back next time.
  • Great customer service is viral–it spreads by word of mouth from happy customer to friends and family around the globe.

Ask not what your customers can do for you; ask what you can do for your customers.

you-won

It’s been so many years we might be fooled into thinking we really don’t know each other any more. If we were truly cynical we might posit we never did. But I think we still know each other intimately, at least in a few small ways. And not only that, I believe we carry each other around with us in our every-day lives, without even knowing.

That is, until an image or a sound or a smell shakes that part of us that was shaped by the other long ago. When this happens, all doubt is removed; we are allowed—maybe it’s more like we are led—to relive the moments of the event as we replay the words again and again, re-watching a clip of a black-and-white film in which a word is uttered, critical yet wholly ambiguous.

My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer last December. I was in the middle of an 18-month sabbatical so I drove to Westmount from Boston six times in the dead of winter—between late-January and mid-March. I relished the drive, and all the places it took me—through the Green Mountains, past rivers I’d fished as a boy, not far off the trail from Jay and Stowe, and along Lake Champlain—that great body of mountain water that drains north to the Richelieu, flattening out and irrigating the pastoral lowlands of the Saint Lawrence valley.

If it snowed on the way, all the better as there was a chance I might get hung-up in a small town, snowed-in for the night, and I’d have to wait it out. It didn’t happen, but it might’ve.

My mom was still living in her old house, on Saint Catherine Street at the foot of Victoria, alone as she had for decades. In her mid-70s I’d begun thinking the worst these past couple years—old woman living alone, falling down stairs, slipping on ice, being harassed by juveniles up to no good. I never thought about lung cancer (she never smoked!).

But when I got there the first week, I could see it in her eyes. The fear had taken her and wouldn’t let her go. It was worse than falling or slipping or being burgled; it was inside her, unknown, and with a terrible will of its own.

I timed my visits to coincide with her major medical events. We spent time at the Jewish General, the Montreal Neurological, and even at the Queen Elizabeth in NDG. We walked to Starbucks on Sherbrooke that morning, had a coffee before going to the appointment with her GP. “That’s where Geordie’s grandparents lived,” I said as we walked past the building facing where Murray’s and the old Bank of Montreal had been. I had no idea how I remembered that, but it came out clear as a bell.

My mom held my arm wherever we went. She’s always done that, and it always kind of bothered me and made me feel good at the same time. When I was a kid and she used to hold my arm when we walked somewhere, it made me wish my dad was around, and that she was holding his arm. It reminded me that he was missing. And as I got older, it made me wonder if I would get married and divorced some day. And when I was older still—long since married and divorced—it just felt good to have my mother holding my arm, no matter what it meant.

We waited for lung specialists, cancer specialists, surgical specialists in the unadorned communal offices of the Quebec health-care system. Receptionists in Oncology are noticeably more humane because of the—well, you know—but the system is tired and overworked, and the rooms are not clean, well-lit places.

Most of the physicians were younger than me. And they all carried Blackberries and iPhones, and they showed us MRI scans on desktop computers hooked into the System’s mainframes. The worn leather chairs offered a contemplative contrast as we sat and waited for the young Turks to arrive and tell us more about my mom’s situation.

“You see that little black spot…right there?” the 30-something doctor asked without even looking at us. “That’s nothing—we don’t know what it is.” There was a lot of uncertainty but they had decided whatever it was, they were going to take it out. “The surgeon will make the decision once he’s in; he may only take part of the lung, or he may take two lobes. It depends.”

Walking back to the car in the February wind, mom held my arm tighter than before.

The day she had surgery I got in my car and drove. I drove all over Westmount. I went to every street I knew, and all the ones I didn’t know. Turns out there weren’t many of those. It was a bright, cold, sunny day and I got out at all the places where things had happened—fights, football games, pick-up hockey matches, first kisses, break-ups, pumpkin bashing, trick-or-treating, drinking beer in parks and smoking cigarettes, biking, skateboarding, everything. It was all there.

When I stopped on Roslyn I took a picture of our old house, Six-One-Three. Then I went across the street, and as I did I froze and remembered a shaping moment. I was hanging around that entrance to the Schoolyard killing time when you came over and informed me that the earrings had been found: “My mom found them; they were in the garbage can in the guest room, next to the bed. The cleaning ladies accidentally swept them off the bedside table. I’m really sorry, John, that we thought it was you. I mean it: I should have known better.”

That was how I learned how to apologize with dignity–from you, a twelve-year-old kid, who chose to be direct, sincere, and empathetic. A lesser person would never have even mentioned the lost earrings had been found. Your apology also taught me about the fineness of your mother, and what she had given you: The way you apologized melted me, and dissolved the anger I’d felt about being accused of stealing; your voice and tone and the substance of your words helped me see past the more general anger and sadness I felt as a kid when my parents separated; your words made me feel whole and like there was an order in a world I felt was deeply flawed and unfair. Feeling good about myself and the world has helped me later in life, in tough times like the one with my mom now. I’m happy to have her holding my arm tightly, allowing some of her fear to press into me and lighten her load. That’s made all the difference.

Failure is healthy.

That’s what you hear if you’re an executive, venture capitalist, or entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Failure teaches smart people great lessons that will come in handy “next time.”

Maybe that’s what the Fed was thinking when it continually relaxed banking, mortgage, and financial services policies and rules. Maybe it’s what the cavaliers at Goldman Sachs and the myriad of failed banks in the U.S. thought. We’ll get a bailout if we fail, and we’ll “learn.”

With pride colored with a pinch of regret I have to applaud Canada: Not a single Canadian bank or trust has failed since the Economic Crisis began 3+ years ago; the Canadian dollar, having dipped sharply, is almost at parity again with the USD; and the Bank of Canada has signaled strongly that it may soon raise interest rates.

Courtesy of The Economist

Canada is out of the Recession. Real estate is climbing, employment is up, and people are going to the mall.

So what’s the catch?

Here’s the rub:

Canada refuses (by policy) to let banks get too big to fail. It also highly regulates the banking industry–the Right hand actually knows what the Left hand is doing.

The downside is that Canada lacks “innovation” in the financial industries and maybe beyond. What it lacks in innovation, it acquires in un-failed banking institutions, low rates of home foreclosures, bankruptcies, and even business/banking scandals.

This is great news. And this is incredibly boring.

Can a country and its people “lead” with such an extremely regulated economy and accepting culture?

That said, can a country like the U.S. lead from its vantage point?

© 2009 John Dila

The following is a letter I wrote to my youngest sister, Sophie. I’m proud of her, as she is about to mark the end of her two-year commitment to the Peace Corps where she has served as a community organizer in a remote high-altitude village in the mountains of Peru. She currently lives with her sponsor family in an adobe house, which is state of the art in those parts. You can read more about her incredible experience here. With permission, here is the letter.

***

Boogs–

As you wind down your Peace Corps assignment in Peru I have some more (unsolicited) thoughts for you around the future. Your future 🙂

Deep, incredible international experience is now part of who you are. I am very excited for you, because I believe that an international education will lead us—and your generation in particular—to a rich life of insights, humanity, and livelihood.

The Economist has a special report about “innovation in emerging markets” in the April 17 issue, and I want to talk with you about some of these ideas as you set the table for your future.

Innovation is a buzzword of our times, in some ways born of the current global economic crisis. In a word, from a US perspective, we are in deep doggy-doo-doo because we’ve chosen to focus on being “the number one consumer society” and on delivering services, rather than on manufacturing things here at home.

We offshore manufacturing to a large extent because there was a time when people and countries with “fewer skills” were “cheaper” to hire than the American workforce. Prior to this era, though, Americans were known around the globe as “the world’s innovators.” Technology, democracy, capitalism (and all the products and services under these mega-umbrellas) are a few of the major innovations we’ve developed or refined.

The approach we took over the past 50-60 years worked for decades, but then problems began to emerge: These pesky things called the Third World and the Second World (that’s what we called them until the late-80s) started to change—and many of them evolved, sometimes (due to their sheer numbers) rather quickly. And they aspired to higher global status—as people, communities, nations, and regions.

And as the years went by, they changed more and we changed less, to the point when astounding events occurred in the global social and economic marketplaces, which caught us off guard.

One problem with the US approach was exactly around this notion of “innovation:” Often times, innovation occurs at the manufacturing stage, or level of an economy. When you outsource that capability, you give away a potential competitive advantage.

Think of how Japan (Toyota) passed the US (the Big 4) in automobile quality, performance, and cost in the 1980s. The Japanese innovated on their assembly lines by applying the ancient principles of kaizen (around “making change for the better”) to car manufacturing.

These innovations in business processes became known as ”Lean Manufacturing,” which in turn spawned another innovation called “Just In Time” business practices, whereby a company only manufactures/inventories products when customers order them, rather than producing millions of units and storing them (which costs money and erodes profits) while marketing them to customers (which costs money and erodes profits).

So finally American firms (like everyone else in the world) adopted Lean Manufacturing and JIT business practices/processes where/when it made sense in order to remain at competitive parity with the rest of the competitive world.

Another problem with the US approach was that it did not account for the rise of emerging economies, which possess the potential to grow vast middle classes (ones that dwarf the US market by factors of 10 and more!) very rapidly.

These so-called “emerging markets” have finally “emerged.” I remember when we stopped calling them the Second and Third World and started calling them “emerging,” to signify their non-static, yet still inferior (relative and subjective) economic qualities and status.

“Emerged nations” (let’s coin the term!) aspire to what they believe is their destiny, just like Americans did in their time of modern emergence.

Emerged nations are not as “cheap” as they used to be, and when they produce goods for the US today, those goods aren’t so cheap for Americans to buy anymore.

This trend toward “economic parity” will continue to drive forward until it costs the same (or more) to produce something abroad, at which point the incentive for the US to outsource the manufacturing functions will disappear.

So let’s keep track: First we lost a competitive edge to innovate by off-shoring critical manufacturing industries and functions; next we lost the benefits that the off-shoring originally held for us; and finally, we might have lost the fire-in-the-belly to “make things” and the business capabilities necessary to do so.

An example of this trend, which hits quite close to home, comes from Canada:

There was a long period of time when the US had twenty-five cents (or more) on the Loon. It was precisely under those economic conditions in 2003 when eBay—searching for an in-expensive English-speaking nation in which to set up a Call Center to serve its growing English-speaking user base (think Canada, US, UK, and Australia)—went to Vancouver (Burnaby, specifically) and opened the eBay Customer Service Center.

The Center bulged to 600+ employees over a two-year period. It was a boon for the B.C. economy, and it looked like a great play for eBay’s bottom line.

Until the globalization tsunami hit Western Canada’s shores:

On July 1 (Canada Day, ironically), 1997 the Brits had handed Hong Kong back to PRC, and many, many HK residents (Chinese nationals, not expats), removed their money from HK and went looking for a safe place (preferably English-speaking, which they’d grown up with in HK), and with better air quality, to invest it.

And they found Canada. Vancouver, specifically, located on the opposite shores of their beloved homeland. Pristine, ready, willing, and waiting.

Over the next decade real estate prices in Vancouver (and Burnaby) went through the roof, and then through the stratosphere, and they’ve been going up ever since.

This global economic shift (from East to West) combined with the softening of the USD (think 2001 dot-com bubble-burst, think 9/11 economic crisis; and then credit defaults, mortgages, and financial scandals since then), caused a “very perceptible” re-balancing of economic power in the North American region.

It was so “perceptible” that eBay Inc. shuttered the Burnaby Center last year because it was simply more expensive to operate in Canada than it was to operate back in the US and offshore, in India (for now, anyway).

I wonder if anyone on the eBay Facilities Search Committee back in 2002 was aware of the impending economic impact of 1997 on Vancouver. If they had been aware, I wonder if they’d have chosen Burnaby in the first place (it’s very, very expensive to ramp up, train, open, operate, and then wind down and shutter a 600+-person operation in a 6-year period).

But in contemporary implementations of corporations in America, we often find textbook cases just like this, where a strategy is formulated, ratified by the BoD, and implemented around the short-short-term (i.e. the Wall Street Quarter) despite knowledge (or at least well-informed strategic insights) that might inform a different course if the Long-Term had been the point of reference.

I wonder if we’ll ever know.

But back to the main point: Not only that, but the larger issue is that those “emerged economies” will begin to focus their attention on their own, truly vast markets of consumers (whom we have almost wholly ignored, btw) instead of “existing to serve the US markets.”

Here are some of the main issues that will confront companies that attempt to market to those “emerged markets” (per the Economist’s special report article called, “Easier said than done”):

“As companies work their way down the income pyramid, the problems proliferate. Distribution is tricky: modern retail chains account for only a third of consumer goods sold in China and a fifth in India. Branding can have pitfalls: the locals may be suspicious of foreign products. Companies may find themselves up against feisty rivals that they have never heard of, not to mention unscrupulous pirates. And China’s rural areas account for 54% of its population but produce a much lower share of its GDP.”

It goes on:

“Companies in search of the much-vaunted fortune at the bottom of the pyramid have to start not with consumers but with non-consumers. They need to get inside poor people’s heads to develop new markets, shaping people’s tastes and establishing habits.”

This plain talk sounds crude and opportunistic at first blush; however, the context of the point about “non-consumers” and “shaping people’s tastes” is we must attempt to objectively define the challenge of marketing to an “emerged market” whose people really don’t know how to be consumers yet, despite their desire to move from ag-based economies toward a more free market-styled one, and that we (in the US and elsewhere) don’t know how to market to “emerged markets.”

The challenge we all face is how to approach this dynamic with a balanced view of capitalism, humanitarianism, and with a view to preserving cultures and values. (An excellent book that delves deep into these issues is “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics,” by Professor Yasheng Huang of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.)

Opportunity knocks—It beckons you, little sister, to have a look deep into the future. Your future:

By any standard, you have a world-class college education. Not only that, you’ve studied broadly rather than narrowly by learning about social sciences, literature, and political science. I remember reading one of your early college papers (I was on a flight to the Burnaby Center, I believe, when I read it) about understanding radical Muslim behavior.

It was a well-researched and passionately written paper, which left me inspired and wanting to learn more (though it could have come off as trite and plain in less capable hands).

As a young person, you were ahead of the Awareness, Passion, and Sensitivity curves.

And now, as the country and other limbs of the economic globe have stumbled and fallen into recession, you chose to employ yourself as a volunteer in Peru, which “is considered an Emerging Market according to the MSCI.”

You were pulled to Peru, as I understand it, for humanitarian reasons, which is the best news because that’s given you even more platform from which to listen and learn, and to help as possible.

Your choice was not (again, as I understand it) motivated exclusively or even partially by capitalism, per se.

Back to the Economist article for a second:

“Some companies even employ corporate anthropologists…Heavy investment in education is also essential. Unilever has teamed up with various NGOs to teach people about the importance of washing their hands and other aspects of personal hygiene. So far more than 130 million people have undergone such instruction, which makes it perhaps the biggest educational exercise in human history. This has helped not only to create a market for the company’s soaps and detergents but also to forge a bond of trust with potential consumers.”

When I learned about Unilever’s initiatives, I naturally thought of your own “Healthy School” initiative in Peru, which the Peruvian Ministry of Health acknowledged by awarding your school and work with national accreditation. My eyes widened as I thought of the possibilities.

Above I emphasized that capitalistic notions did not motivate you and I think you know I applaud that. My reasoning is simple, and twofold:

First, it’s critical for young people to learn how to give when they are young and open to ideas. Volunteering is all about giving. And while parts of capitalism are sort’a-kinda about giving, it really isn’t about that.

Second, going abroad provides you with a critical (and differentiated) point of view about what capitalism could be about. Is our 20th century US implementation of it (along with the legal and social frameworks, our taxation frameworks, and our sense of “community” and social welfare, etc.) really the right one for today and the future? What does the rest of the world–especially “emerged nations”–have to say?

Can we imagine an implementation that is appropriate? One that will serve a broader notion of the terms “worker” and “owner”?

I think so. But I think others in the world will be framing it this time. With contributions from the West, no doubt.

So where will you fit into this? Where do you want to fit into this future that is happening right now?

Is it important to you to “contribute” to the shaping of the future? I think for most people this thought is too abstract to act upon, and too daunting.

For others, though, the notion is only abstract to the extent we are unwilling to grapple with it, to formulate it. For these folks, it is an opportunity not an obstacle.

One answer might be to live and work in the US, either “letting it happen” (passive implementation) or trying to influence as best as you can from within “corporate America” (slightly less passive to slightly proactive implementation).

Another answer might be to live and work abroad, either with a multinational (from anywhere, not necessarily the US), or for a “local” firm. Not sure either of these would be more proactive by definition.

Unilever (an Anglo-Dutch multinational) and P&G (a US MN) both take a longer view than most:

“The techniques they use include “embedding” employees with local families in order to study their day-to-day behavior. P&G sends young marketing people to live with Chinese peasants for months on end.”

Or you can take your own long view, one in which you do not think in short-terms nor do you think about personal gains. Instead, you think about big economic trends. You think of the gaps, and economic dis-parity. You let your mind go to those places for inspiration and information about where things are headed. And, if you’re inclined, you pick one or more of those, and influence in every way you can, by all available means at your disposal.

In short, you continue—as you began in Peru—to develop deep relationships one day at a time, and for the long view, regardless of where you are or with whom or for whom you work.

If you do these things, you will find fulfillment and you will have a tremendous impact. All the rest (passion, love, sustenance will follow naturally).

Here ends the unsolicited thoughts for your consideration.

xo

JD

© 2009 John Dila

This article is reprinted from STELLAService.com from 4/16/10.

***

The term “customer experience” is vast and getting bigger all the time. Practitioners chunk it into component pieces, like website design, reliability, responsiveness, security, fulfillment, personalization, information, empathy, and so on.

Over the next few weeks I want to explore various facets of customer experiences that firms should tend to sooner rather than later because often a firm can make dramatic improvements by focusing on “low hanging fruit” they haven’t even noticed is there for the picking.

Today, I want to build on Nicole’s post from last week–the one that led with the cartoon about phone support hold times and how they’re calculated (which I LOVED, btw :)).

But instead of looking at phone hold calculations, I want to share an experience we had at eBay a few years ago about what chat hold time actuallylooks like to customers, and how a company might go about managing it to advantage by listening to customers and setting/meeting basic expectations.

After all, great relationships–especially ones between companies and customers–start and end with setting expectations and building trust. Michael C. Jensen, in a fall 2009 article, explains this connection:

“The Law of Integrity has a critical effect on business: increased performance…One’s word to one’s self is a critical part of integrity…By failing to honor our word to ourselves, we undermine ourselves as persons [or companies] of integrity…and we will appear to others as inconsistent, unreliable or unpredictable.”

If you say what you mean, and follow through–even if you set the bar low–you have a great chance of building solid, lasting trust.

But if you set an expectation and then totally fan on it, you break your word, and any shot of building trust is gone with the wind.

A few years ago, I wondered how many times customers contacted eBay’s Customer Support (CS). I asked around and quickly realized we had no idea what the total monthly volume was. Why? Because each team ran its own business and the systems for each channel (i.e. chat vs. phone vs. email) were in silos that didn’t talk to each other.

So we decided to count manually, which took some time. After about a month, we came up with the number: eBay received north of nine million customer contacts per quarter in the U.S. marketplace (ebay.com) across all channels combined.

Then we did some deep-dives to figure out how many contacts were chat vs. email vs. phone for each specific issue that members contact eBay about. And within each channel, we tried to discover as many insights as possible to help us drive new strategies for setting and meeting expectations with our customers.

We learned that about 8% of the chats initiated by our customers about Selling issues were being abandoned. We defined abandonment as when the member initiates a Chat but closes the Chat window before the Customer Support Representative (CSR) responds. Here’s an illustrative graph of what that abandonment looked like:

This graph–with its sharp drop-off and long tail–shows exactly the points at which customers abandoned their chat with eBay because a CSR hadn’t responded yet. In fact, it shows that about 50% of customers abandoned the chat session after waiting just one minute. After 3-4 minutes, only 20% of the customers are still willing to wait for a rep.

The data provided several insights into customer behavior: We found a small percent of chatters were (0 to 6 sec.) were just exploring the chat feature; we also discovered that after 2-3 minutes we’d lost about 80% of our customers.

We used the insights to determine new chat hold time “targets” and also to employ “chat hold scripts” which we’d previously only used randomly for promotions. For example, you can tell customers how long they will have to wait (set the expectation), and you can show wait times (show that you’re trying to meet the expectation).

You can also try to engage the customer with useful information while they wait (like offering a Seller-appropriate Help page), or you can offer them another channel of communication (like immediate access to a phone rep in some cases, or a call back by a rep).

The key is to communicate the expectation clearly, and then stick to it like it’s your only chance to win that customer.

In our times of online communities, global commerce, and radical online competition, no firm will succeed with a haphazard strategy of appearing “to others as inconsistent, unreliable or unpredictable,” as Jensen says.

Customers just won’t stand for it, and your competition will eat your strategy for lunch.

© 2009 John Dila

As the world becomes “flatter” we are all learning more and more about things we didn’t even know we knew.

Open wide!

Or are we?

A few years ago I read an article about wine-making and wine-tasting, which made some interesting points around the language the connoisseurs use to describe a wine’s “bouquet,” “nose,” and “finish.” Think: oaky, plump, buttery, dry, robust, smoky, huckleberry, citrus, soapy, corky, stony, sour, vanilla, vegetal, watery, woody, and so on.

Turns out we use common language.

And it is extremely accurate, if accurate is defined as a large, normalized group of individuals agreeing on meaning, quality, or some other measurable dimension.

The words we use are common, everyday.

After reading the article, I found that when I closed my eyes, sipped, and listened to my nose, throat, and palate, I really tasted the dark berries, ground pepper, and a hint of earth and dry dirt. Why didn’t I trust my palate before?

Or, more to the point: Why didn’t I trust my vocabulary?

Here’s an excellent quote from today’s New York Times that illustrates just how this works–this use of common language to reveal how something actually (or might actually) work:

“FOOD partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters.

Modern cilantrophobes tend to describe the offending flavor as soapy rather than buggy. I don’t hate cilantro, but it does sometimes remind me of hand lotion. Each of these associations turns out to make good chemical sense…

Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects…”

Cilantro (aka coriander).

A piece in the Economist recently put forward that we (Americans) are reading three times as much as we did two or three decades ago:

“The amount of reading people do, previously in decline because of television, has almost tripled since 1980, thanks to all the text on the Internet.”

Quantity is up, which sounds good. But what’s the quality of what we’re reading? And what’s the relevance?

Antioxidants is a fine example of a word and concept which have taken the Internet (and millions of our households and gym conversations) by storm. Watch this to see what I mean:

The problem is, the buzz created around this word by savvy marketeers diverts attention away from the absence of substantial content–i.e. What the hell is an antioxidant, and why should we care?

Which half of Welch’s marketing budget do you think antioxidants fall into–the half they knew worked or the other half?

Literature offers another example. It used to be that a book from any one of the major publishing houses would be solid, timely, and worth reading. But is the content we get from them today worth more than what we get online? Is the quality better? We pay for it, so shouldn’t it be better (more entertaining, more accurate, more complete, more persuasive, etc.)?

How many celebrity tell-all books do you plan to read in your spare time this year? Maybe this one by Andre Agassi (and his ghost), published by Knopf?

The writing about the big houses is on the wall: They’ve chosen to adopt the blockbuster business model and to pursue quantity sold versus the quality of the content.

Fair enough. If quantity is your business.

Metaphor. Now that’s a robust concept worth its weight in syllables. Watch how this unassuming trope reveals a very credible explanation (as much as any one in the world can probably peg it in a meaningful way) of the complex topic of Cilantro (from the same piece in today’s NYT article):

“Dr. Gottfried turned out to be a former cilantrophobe who could speak from personal experience. He said that the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences.

The senses of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions, he explained, because they were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators. When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.

If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.”

Coming up in the next Dila View: Can laypeople really learn to understand all the complex things the “professionals” know just because laypeople can now read about them on the Internet?

Or, put another way:

Can (and WILL) the professionals figure out how to use language to communicate so the rest of us can understand?

© 2009 John Dila