Monday, July 9, 2012

Tea Being Hip and the Dark Side of Trends

This post is inspired by a recent post on the English Tea Store's blog, written by William I. Lengeman III of Tea Guy speaks, titled How Tea Became Hip. I originally posted a rather detailed comment on that post, but I decided that the material in the comment was important enough to me to warrant a detailed post of its own.

In this post I want to write about the concept or phenomenon of something being "hip", "cool", "trendy", "in", or "the latest thing". And I will make a distinction between what I see as a healthy way of recognizing (and acting on) trends, and an unhealthy way of viewing or chasing them. This is what I describe as the "dark side of trends".

Pictured here is an image representation of a human hip bone; picture by Stephen Woods, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The relationship between the body part and the slang expression is not clear. Wikpedia's article on Hip (slang) has some good discussion on this matter, if you are interested.

Trends are natural, and it is good to be aware of them:

Because this post risks coming across otherwise, I want to begin by acknowledging that trends are a natural part of human society, and that it is good to be aware of them and to work with them in positive ways. It is especially important to be aware of trends if you run a business.

For example, if you run a small tea shop, and some specific type of tea or herb suddenly explodes in popularity, it would be wise to stock the tea or herb in question, if it fits naturally within your offerings. If it does not fit naturally and you wish not to stock it, it would be benificial to have something in mind, such as a truthful and convincing sales pitch, that would help connect customers seeking that tea or herb with the products you sell.

Another example, which I hope to expound fully in a later post, is that Teavana is very popular, and is one of the most common entry points into loose-leaf tea for Americans. Teavana is a bit of a trend. It can thus be beneficial for people running a loose tea business to be familiar with Teavana's most popular products, and to have something compelling to say (and teas to recommend) to people who express that they like certain of the teas sold by Teavana.

The dark side of trends:

Just like in Star Wars, where there is a good and bad side of the force, I think there is a good and bad side to trends, or to the concept of something being "hip". So that you can get into the mood for understanding this dark side of trends, I would encourage you to meditate on this picture of Darth Vader. Darth Vader is one of the classic "bad guys", but, like all people, he is not wholly evil, and he exhibits good qualities when he saves Luke Skywalker's life at the end of the Star Wars Trilogy.

The above picture is included courtesy of Andres Rueda, Licensed under CC BY-2.0.

How does the concept of trends go wrong? How can the idea of something being "in" or "cool" or "the latest thing" be harmful in society?

  • Unhealthy ideas can become trendy - A good example of this is the negative ideas of body image, which can contribute to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Yes, this is an issue that comes up in the tea industry; see my earlier post on tea and gender roles, in which I go into this issue in more depth.
  • Trends can be manipulated by money and power interests - Trends can be shaped (or even started) by money and power, such as when a corporation pumps money into a marketing campaign to create demand for a new product, or when an individual or business uses their social connections (a form of social power) to induce influential or high-profile individuals to support their trend.

    Because of the profit motive, these manipulations usually lead to trends that enrich the wealthy and powerful interests behind them, rather than trends that are actually most beneficial to society or beneficial to the people following them. This phenomenon is common in the fashion industry, where companies work hard to fuel trends of certain clothing being "in" and then "out", in order to encourage people to continuously spend more money on clothing, when it would be more beneficial to these people and to society to embrace practical clothing and timeless fashions.

    In the tea industry, these sorts of power interests and profit motives are less pronounced, but they do create an incentive for companies to create trends for the teas that generate the most profit for them, and these teas are not necessarily the highest quality teas, since the highest-quality pure teas often result in a greater share of profits reaching the producer, with less room for mark-up by retailers. I explore this issue in more depth on my recent guest post Fair Trade and the Tea Industry on the Journey for Fair Trade blog.
  • The concept of "trendiness" can become associated with an unhealthy way of thinking and acting - I explain this below, because I think it is the most sinister element of the culture of trends.

Trendiness and healthy thinking:

One belief that I embrace as a fundamental belief, is the idea that all people are valuable--innately valuable, not valuable because of their wealth, appearance, or even because of their intellect or character. One way that I think trends can become unhealthy are when they are used to negatively judge or dismiss other people (or groups of people, or businesses or organizations) as being somehow less worthwhile, because they are seen as less "trendy". Some examples of this are:

  • That dress is SO 90's (when said in a negative tone)
  • I can't believe he's still thinking like that (said with disgust)
  • This business doesn't sell X, they clearly don't know what they're doing.

These statements have in common that they express some sort of negative judgement on a person, business, or group, like disdain, disgust, disapproval, because of a failure to follow a certain trend. I find that this is overstepping a boundary for me, crossing the line from disapproval or dislike of the activity or action (which is okay by me) to complete dismissal of the person or group (which I do not think is healthy).

Think you don't do these things yourself? I'd be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that you don't. There's one particular example that I've struggled with recently, and that is racism.

This photo of the KKK was taken by a photographer only identified as "Image Editor"; the photo is Licensed under CC BY-2.0.

Racism, at least in its more overt forms, like those symbolized by the KKK (Ku Klux Klan), is "out". It is "uncool". A majority of people in the US not only dislike it, but, in its more extreme forms, find it disgusting, disturbing. The trend in American society is away from overtly racist statements. But when someone makes a remark that you perceive as racist, it is easy to jump on them, in your mind, or even out loud. But there is a difference between calling out a person on their remark, or believing that the remark is genuinely racist and disrespectful, and dismissing the person as a human being. This distinction took me quite some time to grasp; I do not think I had fully grasped it even at the age of 28. I find it hard to communicate this distinction, but here is my best attempt to sum it up:

  • The unhealthy approach is to think or say something like: you're a really rotten or worthless human being for thinking or saying that.
  • The healthy approach is to communicate something like: you're so much better than a rotten remark like that.

If you struggle with embracing the second way of thinking, remember Darth Vader; if Luke had killed him, he would have himself been killed. Luke, indeed, had tried to kill him repeatedly, and had solidly expressed the first way of thinking (disgust, hate) again and again. Yet Darth Vader still came through and saved Luke's life. If Darth Vader, one of the most famous bad-guys of all time, can come around, think of what a typical KKK member is capable of.

Hopefully, most of us are past (or were never into) the idea of judging another person by how "trendy" their clothing is, but I suspect that many of us still wrestle with the tougher issue of judging or dismissing people on the basis of things they do which we genuinely dislike or are genuinely disgusted by.

What do I do with this?

Because of the potential ugly side to the cultural construct of "trendiness", "coolness", or "hipness", I try to avoid promoting things as being "trendy" or "in", and I invite others to do the same. If you wish to promote something, whether it be a specific tea or type of tea, or a specific concept or idea, or even a certain fashion, I think that the most compelling way to do so is to share your own personal reason for liking it. The same goes for when you dislike something. Share your reasoning or just your feelings or intuition. But I would recommend to avoid making statements about something being "in" or "out", or any equivalent statements, because I think that this way of thinking can easily go in an unhealthy direction.

What do you think?

How do you feel about trends and trendiness? Do you think the advice I give tea companies in this post is sound? Do you believe that there is a relationship between a certain view of trendiness and the unhealthy ways of thinking that I described above? Does the racism example resonate with you? Can you think of other examples of these sorts of things in your life?


  1. I feel like this is a point that relates to the trend against racism - that there's a trend of disliking things that are trendy just because they're popular. Like the music on the radio these days - I like mainstream music because it's the kind of music that I like, and I sometimes feel like people judge other people negatively for liking it. I think it's almost like labeling people as sheep for following trends, or liking anything that's trendy.

    1. I have definitely seen this trend too, like people who dislike and badmouth Justin Bieber, as an example.

      The same trend definitely plays out within tea culture as well, and I've seen it happen with people disliking (and dismissing) broad classes of tea, such as black tea, or even certain ways of brewing tea, like Western style brewing (vs. Gongfu brewing).

      I like avoiding labelling people in any negative way, whether it is for following trends, or for any other reason. But the following of trends is definitely one of the characteristics that I'm seeing a lot nowadays. Bringing it back to the "hip" title, it almost seems to be one of the defining features of "hipster" culture that people seem to go to great lengths to shun trends. But then people observe that there is a trend of "hipsters" shunning trends, and people then make fun of the hipsters for their trendy un-trendiness. And it just starts to become comical, and not particularly constructive in any way whatsoever.

  2. Also, people who dislike bad things just because it's trendy to do so are not likely to make much effort to actually help the cause.

    -Rachel Jacobs

    1. Ahh yes, this has been very true too, in my experience. Racism is a major place where this plays out as well. For example, it is very easy to attack people who are exhibiting the more overt forms of racism, like the KKK, but it is much harder to confront one's own racist tendencies, like the unconscious assumptions that people make about others because of their race, or that people make about a neighborhood or social scene when it is dominated by people of a certain race. actually do things that address systematic racism inherent in the structure of society, like differences in economic opportunity that manifests in how people of certain races tend to live in wealthier areas whereas others live in more impoverished areas, and there are differences in crime, city services, and the educational systems in these different areas. Tough problems to solve...and a whole other topic in and of itself!

      Sylvia and I were talking about that with respect to the Twilight series too, how a lot of people dislike that series and make negative comments about how it is a bad influence on people by providing bad examples of behavior in relationships. But...I think it's much more constructive to instead focus on what a healthy relationship looks like, and perhaps, to write some sort of equally engaging work of fiction! That might actually do some good!

  3. I really like this article, especially the sections that you wrote about profiting from trends and racism. I wish that companies would try to focus on the practicality of products rather than creating trends in order to turn over a profit. I feel like companies who do so aren't thinking about what is most beneficial for their customers. I also wish that consumers wouldn't support companies that do so by buying into these trends and supporting the situation. I also really like that your section on racism focuses on viewing someone as a whole person rather than defining them by a negative quality, however big that may be.

    I definitely feel like there is a 'should' mentality behind trends as well. As someone who doesn't watch TV or listen to the radio, I often encounter people who are shocked that I don't know about certain bands or shows or products, and I'm often met with the idea that I 'should' know about them, listen to them, or try them.

    1. I also wish that shoppers (I avoid using the word "consumers" because I think it carries some loaded assumptions with it) would consciously avoid supporting companies that promote impractical trends.

      I also have encountered the idea that I "should" know about certain bands (or brands), and that I'm somehow sheltered or out of touch with society because I don't know about them. I think that's silly; our society is so incredibly complex that it's not possible for one person to know (or even have heard of) everything out there, even everything that has a broad appeal and large following. Musicians, actors and actresses, brand names, politicians and other public figures...there
      is always going to be a prominent one that a given person doesn't know.

      In the tea world, I think the same goes. I'm constantly being surprised by discovering new tea companies that are so big that I wonder how I've been running a tea website for almost three years now, one that lists hundreds of brands of tea, and yet I have not heard of the company...but that's just how the world works. It's large and complex, and it's not possible to live without missing a lot.

  4. My favorite approach in response to the trendy (which prosper from a business perspective largely due to people who jump on a bandwagon because it is safer, or more profitable than because of any intrinsic moral or quality concerns) was demonstrated by a local mexican place that I find to haVe a unique aesthetic and an uncompromising stance towards quality and freshness: do your own thing best you can and don't pay attention to fads.
    I brought a friend there once who asked them, "is your (some item) like tex-mex style?"
    to which the owner replied, "what's that?"
    On a related note, my college dining hall staff was almost entirely hispanic, but day in day out, they made lame Americanized Mexican food because I guess that's what the manager told them to do on the rationale it is what people expect; 1 or 2 days a year they were actually allowed to cook disges, yknow,that were actually like they grew up eating and knew how to expertly prepare, rather than the typical taco bell-esque fare, and the difference was 180 degrees.
    More generally, I think a lot about how groupthink perceptions and marketing distort X into Y and then tell you it's X (and most likely a really lovely X worth dropping lots of cash on, of course).
    To give a last example of this which has never left my mind, I practice a martial art called aikido. Some years ago, after having 2 years of experience in yjis art, I had moved and was looking for a new pkace to practice. I visited one place which was in a beautiful building. All the members wore nice looking uniforms. They had stacks of finely lacquered wooden swords, fresh flowers. quickly became apparent that everyone in the class could not even roll straight, a basic skill, and their movements lacked basic martial structure and effectiveness. They had all the trappings of the an "aikido dojo," yet lacked the content; worst of all, and potentially dangerously, they were under the impression this was "aikido," --because they were paying fees and going to a building that said "aikido dojo."
    When I look at the conduct of many companies, including the tea world, it is no better, and the people running them are eithet being intentionally deceptive, or just dumb and ignorant. I'm not sure which is worse. Subsequently, I can not wrap my head around the scores of people who willingly and eagerly work in the advertising and marketing business. I can not think of a more intentionally dishonest business.

    1. I agree that marketing can go down a dangerous road. And I do think there are cases, unfortunately, quite a few of them, where marketing steps over an ethical line for me. But I would not be quick to dismiss the business as a whole. I recommend identifying specific practices as dishonest; I think that focusing on the information or marketing that is dishonest, rather than the people, is more effective at encouraging people to actually be honest. If you attack people, such as by insinuating that they have the intention of being deceptive (even if it is true, which, most of the time, you don't know for sure), they get defensive and are less likely to listen. It's a little like the racism analogy I give here...I prefer to view people engaging in dishonest marketing as: "You are better than that." rather than "You are a bad person for doing that."

      One thing that I struggle with a lot is that I've put in a great deal of work to create a resource, RateTea, which has a very high standard of accuracy and integrity--both in terms of the research I put into the articles, and the screening of reviews to prevent fake reviews (and yes, I have a problem with this, and in one case, caught a PR consultant red-handed, even tracking down his real name, for writing fake reviews of a smaller UK-based tea company). But RateTea doesn't market itself...I need to work creatively to figure out how to make the website reach the audience of people who would be most interested in it.

      Also, in terms of the quality issue, with respect to honesty...every person is at a different point in their knowledge and skill with respect to food, tea, or any aspect of life. I find it more empowering to assume good faith in most situations. I really believe that it is a small minority of people that act in intentionally deceptive ways. A lot of people enthusiastically sell products (selling tea, or serving food in a restaurant) that I believe are bad because they haven't ever tried anything better, or perhaps, they have not yet learned how to discern between products of different qualities. Or, in many cases, they may just have different tastes.

  5. You make some great points, Alex. There's a big difference between following trends and being aware of them.

    It's way too easy, when confronted by a trend -- especially one rooted in misconception -- to dismiss the people following it as ignorant or unworthy in some way. My preference is to educate subtly.

    Case in point: there's a tea business in my state that is promoting their teas as the only Montana-made teas. That's amusing to anyone in the trade, given that (a) there's no Camellia sinensis grown here, and (b) there are at least five other businesses (mine included) that do our own blending in Montana. It would be easy to belittle them for the claim. What we have to do, however, when customers come in asking for that specific "Montana tea," is ask whether they want the herbals grown here, or some of the other locally-blended teas. The customers then ask, "OTHER locally-blended teas?" and we can explain about the tea business without saying anything negative about those folks.

    Positive is always the better approach.