Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tea Companies Are Like People: Neither All Good Nor Evil

Recently, I've been involved in starting a novel religious group called Why This Way. One of the topics that we have discussed at length in the group is the idea of viewing people as whole people, rather than characterizing them in one-sided ways. In Why This Way, we have taken great care to agree on how we want to communicate with each other, and one of the key rules of communication we have agreed upon is that we do not want to attach subjective negative labels to people or groups of people.

In this post I want to explore the same concept as applied to tea companies. Tea companies are groups of people, made up of employees and owners. In the context of tea companies, some examples of subjective negative labels might be:

  • Such-and-such company is an evil corporation.
  • XYZ tea company is totally incompetent.
  • That company is one giant scam.

If you've been reading my blog for a while, some of this may sound familiar, from my earlier post Constructive Criticism vs. Diatribes & Rants. If you've been reading my blog for even longer, you might find that I myself have not always been consistent about following this rule. This is in large part because it has only been recently in my life that I have come to learn the value of being conscious of these sorts of statements while communicating. So, before you say: "You are a hypocrite!" (A subjective negative label.) I want to come clean and admit that, if you look at my whole record of behavior and communication, yes, you will find certain hypocritical actions. But I am committed to following this sort of rule...it does not mean I will always do so perfectly, just that it is something I value.

In our group, we discussed many reasons for creating this rule. A lot of it, however, comes down to the fact that these sorts of statements are not truthful. Beyond this, however, we agreed that these sorts of statements tend not to be empowering, in that they are not good for effecting change in the world, and they also tend to have polarizing effects on people, often making people become defensive and making it less likely for them to listen. I want to delve into the question of the truthfulness of these statements.

People and tea companies are never wholly evil (nor wholly good):

The following picture shows the famous illustration of the devil, from the Codex Gigas, a famous medieval manuscript:

I find the devil to be an interesting concept. Whether viewed as a real entity, a spiritual abstraction, or a mythological entity, the devil is usually agreed to be wholly evil. People and tea companies, on the other hand, are never wholly evil (nor are they wholly good). Most people would agree that the first statement above about a company being an "evil corporation" is a subjective negative label, and a sort of exaggeration or distortion of truth. Corporations may do some harmful things, including things that are dishonest or even illegal, and they may act in ways that seem to show a prioritization of profit above the good of society, but it isn't terribly useful to characterize them as "evil", because even ones that ruthlessly pursue profits will usually carry out some positive functions in society, and even if the management is pursuing profit at all costs, there may be other employees within the corporation acting in more caring ways.

The second statement seems a little less strongly worded, but upon reflection, one realizes that it is also limited in its truthfulness. Competence (and incompetence) is relative, and the mere fact that a company is still in existence in some form or another shows a certain base level of competence. If a company (and all its employees) were truly "totally incompetent", it would not exist.

What about the third statement? I want to use this example because there are some companies out there that run scams, such as using false information to sell their products, or pocketing money and leaving creditors unpaid when a business folds. But is it necessarily useful or constructive to call a company something globally negative, like "one giant scam"?

An example: what exactly is a "scam" tea company?

In the course of my work on RateTea, I have come into contact with a broad range of tea companies. None of them is without flaws, but, no matter how bad any one of them gets, there is always a way it could be worse. There comes a point at which I make a decision (sometimes somewhat arbitrary) of whether or not to list the company on RateTea, but there is a whole range of tea companies out there. Let me give you an example of some companies that fall into the grey area:

  • There are quite a few tea companies which sell high-quality tea, honestly labelled, at reasonable prices, and provide good customer service, but provide some false information, often about health or caffeine content, on their website, in order to promote their products.
  • There are some tea companies which sell very low-quality tea, which, in my opinion, is not really worth buying (or drinking). As an example, I've received a few tea samples that I've thrown out without drinking. Thankfully, these sorts of examples are rare.
  • There are some websites which look a little like tea company websites, but which consist exclusively of affiliate links to other websites--what looks superficially like a legitimate business is just a commission-based model. Thankfully, I've actually seen a pretty steep decline in these sorts of websites over the three years that I've been working on RateTea, which may be in part due to Google and other search engines getting smarter about preventing these sorts of people from drawing in web traffic.
  • Some tea companies may sell decent-quality tea at a decent price, but use black hat (unethical) search engine optimization techniques to manipulate their visibility in search engines.
  • I've encountered allegations of one company deliberately misrepresenting their products, and then going out of business, leaving a large amount of debt unpaid.
  • There are a large number of companies that sell low-quality tea at high prices, promoted as a weight loss product. These companies range from packaged brands which actually can be found in some stores, to online companies consisting of a very simple website selling a single product. Some of these sites also do not sell directly, but just make money through affiliate links like the others mentioned above.
These sorts of situations are quite different from each other in their level of "scamminess", but they are also different from each other in how they are like scams.

I find it problematic to call a company a "scam" because this sort of statement does not communicate exactly what is going on. A global statement about a tea company being a complete scam communicates neither the severity nor type of scam being carried out. Also, from the perspective of the tea company, levying an accusation of being a "scam" seems like a hostile action intended only to harm the company, rather than a constructive criticism intended to encourage the company to improve its practices. If a company has some flaws, it can work to improve them, but if it is a "scam" the implication is that its whole business model is fraudulent and that it is beyond hope. And companies, even ones running the most harmful, overt scams, are still run by people, and like companies, people always have some redeeming good qualities.

I also find it problematic because people often use this sort of word in situations where it is not warranted. For example, I have seen people throw around these sorts of accusations in response to a bad customer service experience like a botched order that a company did not correct or handle to the customer's satisfaction.

If you want your message to be heard:

Making strong statements like calling a company evil, or calling a company a scam, in my opinion, is not the best way to get your message across. Although this sort of statement may attract attention, it is unlikely to encourage the company to improve its ethics or practices. And in the cases where a company really has done something egregiously terrible, I think it is best to communicate exactly what the company did, and let the action in question speak for itself.

Please hold me to these standards:

I have one last request for readers of this blog. If you see me making these sorts of statements about any tea company, any person, or any other group of people, please call me out on it. Like I said above, if you've read my blog for a long time you will realize that sometimes I have made these sorts of statements in the past. My work with Why This Way has inspired me to hold myself to a higher standard of communication, but it is hard to accomplish these sorts of changes alone, so I'd appreciate it if you can bug me if you see me slipping into any of these sorts of negative generalizations about people or groups of people. Thank you!

What do you think?

Do you agree with my general advice here? Have you ever thought about these sorts of issues? Are you willing to give me a hard time and call me out if you see me making these sorts of statements?

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