I lived in the dorms for almost my entire college career. About this time of year (every year), my hallmates and I started getting a little cranky. We were tired of being cooped up together all semester, antsy for Christmas break so we could see our families, and stressed out over upcoming finals. There was a lot of bickering, accusations, and insults.
I’ve seen something very similar going on across the stationery community the last couple of weeks, and it’s really sad and disheartening. I’m not going to rehash the events that unfolded, and I’m not going to call anyone out. I am, however, going to let you know what I saw, how it made me feel, and hopefully add a little perspective that makes you think.
The Great Stationery War
Over the last two weeks, I watched three companies make decisions or engage in practices that some found questionable. I watched people hurl insults and demand answers in response. I watched people resort to name-calling when they didn’t like the answers that came back, and I watched people jump to conclusions if answers didn’t come back at all. I watched (listened) as a podcast went on full attack toward one of the companies. I then watched as other podcasters and bloggers reprimanded the first podcast for their behavior.
In short, I saw outrage directed at companies, outrage directed at individuals, and outrage directed at the outrage. I saw anger, abuse, and a whole lot of people assuming bad intentions.
Over what? Notebooks and backpacks.
A Little Perspective
I know there are bigger issues at play than just notebooks and backpacks. Some of the actions around these products struck nerves with people, and I’m not trying to diminish the bad feelings caused by those actions. Just to be clear: I believe gendering notebooks is dumb and unnecessary. But is it worthy of outrage or vitriol?
I’m going to do something I don’t normally do: open up and give you a glimpse of my private life. I haven’t shared most of this publicly, so I’m really stepping out of my comfort zone here. Here’s a synopsis of the last couple years of my life:
- In August 2016, my 39-year-old wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s gone through two surgeries, chemo, radiation, and maintenance treatments that have kicked her ass for the last 16 months. She’s only now starting to feel normal again.
- In 2015, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer in both lungs. She went through two operations and radiation, only to have the cancer come back in late 2016. This time, it migrated to two lymph nodes, which shot the cancer all over the place. She spent 2017 going through aggressive chemo and radiation, only to have the cancer pop up in her spine, her arm, and then back into her lungs. She lost her battle, passing away on October 21. She suffered far more than she deserved, and I’m still feeling the sting.
- In August 2017, my wife’s cousin lost a long battle with melanoma. He was 42 and left behind an amazing wife and two beautiful daughters. He suffered a lot, too.
- One week later, one of my cousins passed away unexpectedly after complications from surgery. He was 52.
- And the last thing I’ll mention is that I suffer from chronic migraines that have gotten worse over the past several years. They hit me almost every day. Sometimes twice a day. It’s accurate to say that I spend an inordinate amount of my life in pain.
I could list a few more things, but I think you get the picture. The last couple years have been kind of miserable. Then I look at the outrage of the past two weeks. Are you kidding me? Maybe these companies made mistakes. Maybe they made bad decisions. Maybe they did things that offended people. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s very petty stuff that doesn’t warrant the response. It’s not cancer, people.
Look, I have an amazing hobby that brings me joy, helps me relax, gives me reason to interact with people all over the world. Of course, that hobby is stationery. Fountain pens, ink, paper…it’s all luscious and it’s a world I can get lost in for hours. In addition to using and reviewing these things, I can read blogs about them, watch videos about them, and listen to podcasts about them. It’s really quite remarkable.
It’s my hobby, and it’s supposed to be fun. Hasn’t been much fun the last two weeks, though.
The Culture of Outrage
It’s not just our community. The entire world has gone nuts. People regularly fly into a rage over all sorts of things, big and small. There’s anger, abuse, victim mentality, baiting, entitlement, narcissism, polarization, and politicizing. And it’s everywhere. We live in a culture of outrage, where mistakes and missteps are deemed unforgivable, where statements are taken out of context and used to incite unrest, and where people who don’t fully understand something immediately assume negative intent (or gross negligence) and launch their own attack.
The whole thing is disgusting, and it bit us in the ass pretty good these past two weeks.
Now, I’m going to say it again: I believe his/her notebooks are dumb. It’s insensitive. If you were offended by the situation, I don’t fault you, and I don’t think you’re being unreasonable. But was there actual harm? I honestly don’t see it. I heard someone use a hypothetical example of a little boy asking his parent to buy the floral notebooks and being told, “no, those are for girls.” (RSVP Podcast, Episode 17) Sorry, I don’t buy that. That’s 100% a reflection of the parent’s belief system, not the marketing. If a parent is going to say that to their son, they’re going to say it whether it’s labeled as a women’s notebook or not. The label won’t change anyone’s response.
Do I have an example to support this bold and ridiculous claim? Well, of course I do.
Story Time! I was in Jr. High when parachute pants were all the rage (NOT Hammer Pants! I’m talking about the nylon ones with all the pockets.). This was also before the term “all the rage” was all the rage. Another hot piece of attire was this cool nylon jacket with a big zippered pocket on the front. You could remove the jacket, turn it inside out, stuff it inside its own pocket, and fasten it around your waist like a fanny pack. I know: Stylin! The huge pocket was great for contraband: candy bars, bubble gum, squirt guns, erasers pilfered from the chalkboard, etc. The catch? These were women’s jackets, sold in a women’s fashion store. We weren’t old enough to drive or get a job, so we had to ask our parents to take us there. I asked my mom to take me to the women’s store, she asked why, I told her about the jacket, and she said okay. The next day, I went to school wearing a women’s jacket stocked with a squirt gun and a pack of Bubblicious (both were confiscated by the end of the day). My mom didn’t care if it was made for/meant for women. I wanted it, so she got it for me. It’s the parent, not the marketing.
Now just to be fair…
I’m a guy, so I might not be the best one to give an opinion on this gendered notebook thing. So I approached a few women I know and presented them with the situation. These are strong women. Left-leaning, but not nutters. These are women who will tell you if you’re being offensive. I chose them specifically for that reason. Unanimously, they stated that they didn’t see a problem with the gendered notebooks. None of them were offended. In fact, all of them said, “Who cares?”
I’m not saying these companies are blameless. I’m not saying that anyone offended wasn’t justified. But I am saying that the outrage I saw over these issues is unreasonable and unwarranted. All of it. As of right now, we don’t know the true story behind those notebooks. How can you justify outrage over something when you simply don’t know the reasoning/events behind it? And regarding the backpacks, I heard one of the owners explaining things on a podcast, and his story was reasonable and made sense. Yes, they have terrible communication. But in no way do I think there was any malice or wrongdoing on their part. They’re just not good business people (yet).
Points to Ponder
The stationery community gave itself a black eye these last two weeks. The college crankiness I mentioned earlier always seemed to dissipate over winter break. We’d come back in January like nothing had ever happened. It was like cabin fever. We just needed to get away for a bit. I’m hoping that the events of the past two weeks follow the same pattern. We are a community after all. We’re going to have disagreements and sometimes arguments. But as any community, we should be looking out for each other, supporting each other, respecting each other, COACHING each other, and trying to understand each other. There’s room for all of us.
I’d like to close with some questions to think about.
- The retailer selling the notebooks is not one I’ve ever bought from. I don’t like them or their products. But I checked out their online shop this week to see how things were set up. The ENTIRE shop is divided into two sides: Women’s and Men’s. They don’t have a third, gender-neutral category at all (probably never needed one before). Has anyone considered the possibility that the notebooks were labeled as men’s & women’s because of how the site is structured? Adding a third category might require a whole reconfiguration of the site. Maybe new code. They can’t be screwing with that at Christmas-time. Especially not for $15 notebooks that are only temporarily in stock.
- My previous question accounts for the categories, but not for the fishing ones going to the men’s side and the flowers going to the women’s side. Do we know for a fact that they didn’t hold customer focus groups to pick designs? As a company, they want to sell things. It’s common to assemble focus groups to see how designs/products will be received. I would expect that they had a big pile of designs to choose from. Who did they share the designs with? Did they have people rate them or vote on them? How may people were involved in the selection process? Is it possible that they went with those specific designs because data from focus groups of actual customers indicated those were the designs most likely to sell to each demographic? I mean…that’s the kind of things companies do, right?
- And what about the printing company? Why would anyone assume they were negligent with choosing to partner with the retailer if we don’t know what they discussed? The retailer has new executive management, so is it unreasonable to think they deserve the opportunity to act more responsibly? Say the retailer did hold focus groups and told the printer, “we want notebooks to go with our men’s and women’s lines, and here are the designs our customers indicated would sell best.” Is that unreasonable? Why would/should the printing company question that?
- As far as the backpacks, did anyone get screwed out of their money or their backpacks? Did any unhappy customers not walk away with their problem resolved? If they’re taking care of everyone, why the outrage?
- And what of the attacking podcast? Were they being malicious, or did they just get carried away, not realizing the full effect of what they were saying? Did we miss a teaching/coaching opportunity to reach out to them and help them understand the effects and perceptions of their words?
There’s a lot we don’t know. And because of that, there have been a lot of assumptions made, and a lot of ugly comments stemming from those assumptions. Sometimes people do or say things that are insensitive or offensive. Sometimes people don’t tell you what’s going on when they should. Sometimes people are just evil. But I think we owe it to ourselves and to each other to investigate the truth and build opinions around facts, complete pictures, and the understanding that we’re all human beings and deserve to be treated with care and dignity.
What Do You Think?
Am I out of line? Am I clueless? Am I too forgiving? Am I full of crap? I’d love to know your thoughts on my perspective.
[Edited Dec. 15, 2017 – Added attribution/link]