What does ‘please’ mean?

Look up the dictionary for tough words like ‘disambiguate’ (remove the ambiguity from) and the results seem meaningful. The definition works as long as you are clear on what ambiguity means. Now, look up the word ambiguity – doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention. Look up doubt and this is what you get – be uncertain about; hesitate to believe. Look up uncertain and this is the definition – not definitely ascertainable or fixed. See where this is going? We understand words only in the context of the situation they are referred to. Words are the very hounds that lead us on a merry chase and disappear in a puff of smoke just when we get closer. There is no such thing as absolute meaning.

If that seems strange, think of ‘freedom’. We all know what it means, straight off, right? No need to consult a dictionary or that all encompassing fount of human wisdom – Wikipedia. Look it up for ‘freedom’ anyway and you won’t get one set of meanings. You have to define freedom within various contexts to get a more definitive result. You have to deal with disambiguations! In other words, dive deeper. Skimming on the surface is not an option.

So words that refer to very broad contexts – the ones that we use in everyday conversation are the hardest to define! What does the word ‘please’ mean? The answer? It depends on whether you use ‘please’ as an adverb, a verb or an idiom. If that sets you scurrying for the meaning of adverb (any member of a class of words that function as modifiers of verbs or clauses) or verb (any member of a class of words that function as the main elements of predicates) and idiom (an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements)

Are you any wiser? It’s like the dictionary which is a friend in times of need suddenly bares its fangs and hurls abuses leaving you completely befuddled. Don’t bother to look it up. The confusion is not likely to be cleared any time soon. It appears that when you turn to the dictionary to look up the simplest words in the English Language, you get mind benders. When you think you finally know English, or for that matter, any language, you realise you don’t!

Our entire knowledge of letters adding up to words (a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning) is built on shaky, verbose foundations. We need complex definitions for the simplest of words. But simple words aren’t enough to convey shades of meaning. So, we have to layer it with complexity till the skyscraper that it is built on threatens to fall. Let’s construct one starting now. Doubt, uncertain, vague, ambiguous, enigma, illusory, apocryphal are all overlapping words built atop one another. What is the real difference? The contexts we use them in. Academics would not like to use simple words because they seem elementary.

Words are representations of meaning rather than true meaning. The rest is in our expressions and body language – thankfully we seem to understand this universally without the need for an actual language. Otherwise, communication would be impossible.


Too much of a good thing

One of the things that advertisers and marketers frequently wrestle with are the offers and discounts to be given to customers. How much? How often? What are the ways to reward the most loyal customers better? How can it be done without diluting brand value? After hundreds of years of commerce, there’s still no black and white answer – only shades of gray.

Take, for example, the problem that American Airlines was trying to solve – giving large companies who were their biggest customers an incentive to buy more First Class tickets. They assumed that they could lock in this segment with VIP treatment and not have them cross over to a competitor. So they priced ‘lifetime’ free First Class tickets at $250,000 in 1981. That was serious money 30 years ago – or even today. To sweeten the deal further, they even offered a freebie – travel with a companion.

Given the normal flying pattern based on existing customer data, the airline would have come out ahead. What they did not expect was the change in customer behaviour. Instead of top executives alone, the idea was embraced by those who could afford it and loved flying. Within a few years, these customers had racked up millions of air miles – enough to give them unlimited privileges at airports, lounges and in-flight for free. And it was the airline that lost – in some cases, as much as a million dollars a year.

Groupon as a company is built on daily deals. At first, it seemed a great way to introduce people to new brands. The idea of sampling taken to an exciting new level. But there were too many instances of customers who took the deals happily and never returned. Sometimes, the deals were so good, they overwhelmed the company offering it and the loss was both bad for business and bad for customer perception. The number of Groupon imitators has multiplied. There are Indian ones like Snap Deal which have simply taken the same model and replicated it, hoping to reach an insane valuation in a short while and sell out… But they did not handle the primary problem. How do you ensure that the deal is good for both, the seller and the buyer? The danger is also that if the first experience of the brand is a discounted one, getting customers to pay the full price just gets harder.

It’s the classic chicken and egg problem. Does the customer come first or the brand? Actually, what comes first is anticipation. No customer buys a product alone. They buy into the promises and benefits associated with the brand – the shades of gray. And discounting a brand is an even greater headache. Because people have now come to expect that brands will have days on which they are sold at less than the regular retail prices. At the festival time. Or when a milestone is crossed – 1 million cars sold! In many cases the milestones are invented – summer sale, end of season sale, annual sale because there has to be an excuse to drop the price. Or else the brand value takes a hit. There aren’t easy answers to this one – and even the most experienced marketing managers can end up playing ‘eeny meeny myna mo’


Satyameva Jayate – Aamir makes a splash

It was a highly anticipated show. India’s ‘Thinking Star’ Aamir Khan has used his persona to address the country’s problems. And the picture he paints in the first episode isn’t pretty. Female Foeticide has grown by leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades to a horrifying statistic – 30 million girls killed before they even had the chance to be born.

He traces the genesis to a state-sponsored policy to reduce the number of women in the 1970s because the population growth in the country was assuming alarming proportions. The government believed that if the number of child bearers was reduced, the population growth would slow as well. Instead, it led to a flourishing industry of unscrupulous doctors and ultrasound machine manufacturers systematically eliminating girls in the womb. The business has developed its own code – Jai Shri Krishna if the scan revealed a boy and Jai Mata for girls. The second is a virtual death sentence and a ‘package deal’ where the cost includes an abortion.

The social effects are already apparent. There are villages like Kurukshetra in Haryana where men over 30 are unmarried because they simply aren’t enough girls. So, another industry has sprung up around the procurement of girls from poorer states who live a life very close to prostitution with no legal remedy.

And for all those who live smug in the misconception that female foeticide is a rural and a ‘poor people’ problem, he demonstrates that it is the middle class and the rich who have access to advanced medical facilities who are the biggest culprits.

Indian families see girls as burdens since they have to bear the cost of marrying the girl off and providing the dowry. The boy, on the other hand, is seen as the saviour, the one who can be depended upon when parents grow old. But the stereotype is no longer true. India has had to enact a law where the rights of elders are protected and they are not driven from their homes when too old to take care of themselves.

Against a more forgiving and a more inclusive society, there was the joint family web that protected the aged and women. But with the development of the nuclear family and the ‘every man for himself” attitude, there is little tolerance for those who are not ‘useful’ anymore – or for those who live beyond it

It’s heartening to note that Aamir Khan has put his charisma on the line to speak up for those who need a voice – and to shine a light on the problems that most people wish away or change the topic. The format of the show – part talk, part documentary, part activism, with a musical flourish at the end does not break away from convention. A number of options were probably explored before the team decided that this would be best way to present sensitive subjects. Most stars tend to use their charisma to build their image – but this is an exception. Instead of walking on the red carpet, Aamir has taken the pains to explore the dirt that is routinely swept underneath it. And moved from mythology at prime time to exploring the myths we comfort ourselves with – just because the truth is so hard to take.