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Shame on Us

Jim Wasserman

OVER 600 YEARS AGO, Geoffrey Chaucer gave the world The Canterbury Tales, a caustic look at a cross-section of English society. While all the stories are still worth reading, one tale is especially relevant to today’s consumer.

For those who don’t remember The Canterbury Tales, it’s a story about a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury. They pass the time on the road by having a contest to see who can tell the best tale.

One of the travelers is a “pardoner” by profession. He describes how he goes from town to town, delivering a pat speech against greed. He then finishes by brandishing supposed holy “relics” of bones and clothing, including a mitten. These relics can purportedly absolve sins, solve problems and cure ailments.

The Pardoner invites all to pay a fee to interact with the relics and be publicly relieved of their troubles. But he also issues a dire public warning: Those whose sins are too great cannot be absolved by these relics, so they should remain in their seats and not even attempt to pay. The Pardoner then gleefully watches as most come forward, even those who doubt his authenticity, lest they be suspected by their peers of secret horrible sins.

Most people today don’t seek absolution, least of all by paying to put on a holy mitten. Still, Chaucer’s tale encapsulates a contemporary sales technique. The Pardoner is knowingly tapping into our nonrational, but very common, fear of public shame, or what we’ll call FOPS.

Paying for doubtful absolution is not based on rational factors, like cost or quality, but on concern that not utilizing the product will invoke social ostracism. It’s somewhat similar to the bandwagon effect or FOMO (fear of missing out) nudge, where people spend because they’re afraid of missing a good deal. But with FOPS, consumers know it’s a bad deal and yet they still waste money because, if they don’t participate, they might invite social backlash.

FOPS is very much a nudge for today’s world. Many a wise consumer will tell you how he or she felt something was a bad deal from the beginning, but couldn’t resist buying because of tacit pressure from friends or societal expectations. Salespeople can often close a deal with a hesitant buyer by saying, “Of course, if you need to see something less expensive….” Millennials may not know Chaucer’s Pardoner, but most can explain the context and meaning of, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink.”

Phone shaming is one example. When one of our sons wanted his own cellphone in middle school, we bought him a Firefly, which was a sort of starter cellphone, where parents could limit calls. Initially ecstatic, our son quickly lost enthusiasm and begged us for an “adult” cellphone, not because he needed it, but because his friends said he had a “baby” phone. Even among adults, my iPhone 5S today invokes sneers of, “You still use that?” Yet it serves my needs—and at a much lower cost.

People aspiring to executive positions are often told what are the right neighborhoods to live in, the right country clubs to join and the right cars to have in the parking lot. These people, who have worked their way up to this rarified level, are money smart, yet even they knowingly squander money on non-necessities “because that’s what’s done.”

FOPS is a waste of both personal budgets and community resources. It perpetuates non-inclusive, non-innovative, inner circle thinking. At its worst, anyone who dares to act differently is seen as a threat to the system and “not one of us.” You even hear that millennials are wreaking havoc or killing industries by abstaining from certain products—as if consumers are meant to serve industries and their products, not the other way around.

Wasting money for fear of social repercussions? That sounds to me like a relic of the past.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles include Under AttackTerms of the Trade and When in Rome. Jim’s three-book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy,  Media, Marketing, and Me, is being published in 2019. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.

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Thomas Taylor
Thomas Taylor
2 years ago

I got a 4s in 2012 at the insistence of my then boss because he wanted 24/7 access. I guess I’ve been lucky as it still has the original battery and it still does what I need it to. I guess when it simply quits or more to the point, when I cannot access new photos of my grandbaby on the shared folder, I’ll get a new phone. People give me a hard time about the phone as well but I don’t care.

CJ
CJ
2 years ago

It’s so much easier now to avoid this fear of shame than it used to be – I graduated in the late ’80s/90s and the “Wall Street” decades that followed were a much more conformist society- many of us were judged on clothing labels, cars, etc more so I think than today. I bought a lot of stuff I didn’t really want to, because I felt I didnn’t have a choice. Fitting in was important to one’s career then. The 09 recession, millennials and whole FIRE concept has made it a little more acceptable to be frugal or just more restrained with money in my opinion.

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
2 years ago
Reply to  CJ

CJ I absolutely agree. I think that society is now recognizing there are many paths to happiness/success. I even saw that in my last years of teaching where kids more than before seemed to display a “not my thing, but cool for you” attitude.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
2 years ago

We had a related behavior in our family, starting way back on my father’s side. It was a “fear of not picking up the check”. He had great Aunt’s who would always pay the tolls for family members in cars behind them. They would arrange with the maitre’d to have the check quietly settled so no-one could pay it. My dad picked up this trend, and it spread to my brothers and me. Not sure why. We can all pay our own way. There is a great Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dad lost his wallet, and tries to explain to a restaurant why he can’t possibly let his son pay.

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
2 years ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Rick, my wife accuses me of being a compulsive “Let me help with the bill” offerer even when we are invited out as guests. I really have no idea where it comes from, but I know the pain in my knee is from my wife’s kick under the table!

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