Sears and the cooperative principle

Last week I was in a Sears store in downtown Toronto. I had in mind that I needed some more socks and, lo and behold, they had SALE signs all over their socks racks. I went up to a rack of multi-packs. The sign said, buy 1, get 25% off; buy 2, get 30% off, buy 3, get 35% off. Now, their socks were not outstanding prices, but when you knocked that much off it was persuasive. I selected two packs of three socks and took them up to the cash. The girl rang them up. The price seemed a bit much. I asked her what it came to before tax (just in case my math had been wrong). She explained that the sale didn’t apply to multi-packs.

I said, “Well, I’m not buying them” and took them back to the rack, about four metres away. As I was hanging them back up, I said, “Why would you do that? Now I’m not buying the socks, and you’ve just pissed me off.” One of her co-workers came over and helpfully pointed to the line of 8-point type at the bottom of the sign saying that multi-packs and certain brands were excluded. I pointed out that the sign was on a rack that had nothing but multi-packs on it. Now, why would you put up a sale sign on a rack that did not have any items on it that were on sale? A reasonable person would simply not expect that. Effectively, the sign that proclaimed in large type that these socks were on sale had, in print you had to lean close to read, “except everything.”

Sure, sure, caveat emptor. Well, I didn’t buy, and – having heard about a similar experience my wife had – I don’t now really have any inclination to shop at Sears. So caveat vendor. That was a stupid thing for them to do.

But of course you don’t expect me just say that and leave it be, do you? That’s not what this blog is about. Naturally, I’m going to explain why it was a stupid thing for them to do and how that all works.

Let’s say someone’s visiting me and they say, “It’s hot out.” And I say, “There’s some beer in the fridge.” What’s reasonable for them to conclude I mean by that?

Now, if they say “Thanks” and get a beer from the fridge and open it and I then say, in earnest, “Hey! The beer in the fridge is not for you!” who’s the asshole? They made an assumption about what I intended. But was it an unreasonable assumption? Are they an asshole for taking the beer when I didn’t explicitly say they could have one?

No, I’m the asshole for leading them to believe that they could have one. Because why else would I say “There’s some beer in the fridge?”

Normal people in normal circumstances (I’ll talk about lawyers in a moment) operate on the basis that we speak to each other to communicate with each other – that we have some idea we want to convey, some effect we want it to have on them, and some response we expect them to have to that. We shape our communication to accomplish those ends. However, we also want to keep our communication efficient, and we want to be polite – we very often ask for things indirectly, for instance, so as not to imply we have a right to demand those things – and we want to construct bonds between ourselves and our interlocutors, something we do by using in-group locutions, clever roundabout ways of saying things, jokes, and so forth.

One of the great thinkers of 20th-century linguistics, a fellow called Paul Grice, formulated something called the cooperative principle. It might be called the “don’t be an asshole” principle. It describes what we expect of each other in communication, given that we expect each other to be decent, cooperative communicators, rather than to lie or mislead one another. There are four maxims in this principle.

The first is the maxim of quantity: don’t give more or less information than is pertinent.

The second is the maxim of quality: don’t say things you know aren’t true or don’t have decent reason to think are true.

The fourth is the maxim of manner: don’t be unnecessarily obscure or ambiguous or overly wordy, and don’t say things out of order.

The third, which others since have suggested is really at the base of all four – and that’s why I’m giving it apparently out of order (because it’s really the most important and so merits being first or last) – is the maxim of relation: be relevant. Don’t say things that are irrelevant or say them in irrelevant or misleading ways, and don’t leave out or obscure relevant information.

So, if my friend says, “It’s hot out,” and I say, “There’s some beer in the fridge,” my friend will reasonably conclude that I have said this prima facie non-sequitur in order to convey some information that is relevant to what he said – in particular, he may conclude that I decided on the basis of what he said that he must be thirsty, and that I am giving this information to indicate to him that he may slake his thirst with a beer from my fridge. This would be a reasonable conclusion. There’s no reason for me to say something like that if it has no relevance to anything he can do anything about. (If we’re putting together an event, then of course it could be relevant to serving the guests, but, as I said, he’s just visiting me.) It would be an excess of information, it would not be pertinent information, and, given that I said it, my failure to give another reason for saying it and to tell him in advance it’s not for him would be at the same time a lack of information. It would be, in a literal sense, impertinent of me – not of him!

Would that stand up in court? If I accused him of stealing a beer and he said he understood me to mean that he could have one, would he have a leg to stand on? Well, I don’t know just how aware the legal system is in general of the cooperative principle (in this case they’d probably tell me to get out of their courtroom already because it’s just a frickin’ beer), but it’s a fact of the legal system that it has to operate on what one might better call the uncooperative principle. People come into the legal system precisely because someone’s uncooperative, dishonest, acting in bad faith, et cetera. Contracts are often written to mislead and deceive. So, since some people out there are assholes, lawyers have to be, communicatively, professional assholes: that is, they have to cling to logic and overt statements, things that are entirely inescapable in a contract, for instance. There is room only for logical deduction, not for inference based on assumptions.

Lawyers are not wrong to go against the cooperative principle in a legal context. But in everyday life, it is not unreasonable to expect people not to be assholes. We invented the legal system to deal with assholes, and it is, effectively, the only proper home for asshole communication.

Now, back to Sears. Signage of course has to be legally defensible and not to promise something it doesn’t deliver. And the sign at Sears was legally defensible in that it had that asterisk text that effectively said “except everything.” But people in daily life simply do not generally like to approach it as that sort of game.

Few people want to buy from assholes unless those assholes are giving good value. If you see a sign on a rack proclaiming a sale, you are not unreasonable to think that the sign will not happen, in the text that you would need to adjust your eyewear to read, to exclude everything on that rack. It would be bad behaviour, but it would also be bad business. You see what happens: I notice that I have been misled. I get pissed off. I leave. If someone buys something without noticing that it was excluded, then congratulations, you tricked them, but if they notice later, they will be very pissed off. It’s just not a good idea to piss off customers, usually. Especially not when you have lots of competition.

There’s still a bit more to this: they may think that this is a good idea because it draws people in, and that they’ll be in the buying mood and will still want to buy something even when they realize their first choice isn’t available. And indeed, people who sell things like electronics can get away with a fair amount of bait-and-switch, and since those are expensive items, they will still do OK even if the customers feel bad and abused later and don’t come back, as long as they buy the thing in the first place. Big items like that are emotional decisions and you can lead people on. We may wish that dickheads who do that would sink below the waves, but they will always manage to sucker enough people. But there really is a better way to do it, especially when you’re selling socks, which are not an emotional, high-ticket purchase, and when you do want repeat customers.

I mentioned above that order is important. Let’s say someone gives me a beer, and I say, “This is good beer, but it’s a bit warm.” Does that have the same effect as “This is a bit warm, but it’s good beer”? It does matter which goes last, doesn’t it? And if you say “SALE! but not on this,” is the final taste in the mouth going to be positive or negative? How about if they have a sign that says “Sale on all single-pair sock packs”? Or “Single-pair sock pack sale”?

How about the difference between “SALE! excludes the following brands:…” and “SALE on the following brands:…”? Or perhaps “McGregor sock SALE” or “Calvin Klein sock SALE”? It’s not just the order, either, is it? It’s the sense that it’s something special, something exclusive, a particular item to focus on. A little deal, just on this, just now, just for you.

Sales are, after all, something special. You can sell a lot by making people feel like there’s a special exception, a limited quantity or opportunity. I’m put in mind of a store that decided that rather than having sales, they would just talk about their everyday low prices. I think it was true that on everyday prices their prices might have been around the same as everyone else’s or even a little better, but of course when their competition had sales, their competition won. In fact, their competition just plain old won altogether. Because that store, Eaton’s, went out of business. Their downtown Toronto store was replaced by a Sears store. Where, as it happens, I have decided to stop shopping.

Sears clearly has managed to stay in business for quite some time. But that doesn’t mean it’s in their interests to go on pissing people off. After all, those people can still go to the Bay or to Winners or or or… If I’m an asshole to my friends, they won’t hang around with me anymore, but at least I’m not relying on them for my income.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s