My conversational style brings lots of response from readers. Usually, that response is intelligent, thoughtful, and sometimes even very entertaining. Now and then, the response is stupid, ill-thought-out, and sometimes even very entertaining. While I obviously love the first kind, it’s a lot more fun to deal with the second type.
This doesn’t have anything to do with letters from readers who think a story “isn’t funny,” by the way. Darned right: I have made it very clear that not all stories are meant to be funny; they can, in fact, be deadly serious — and sometimes tragic. There’s already a page with my response to such “that’s not funny” story complaints.
And sometimes a minority of readers think that my responses to the more “stupid” reader letters sound angry or upset. Not at all, but I’ve heard it enough that there’s reassurance about that on this site, too.
But What About Reader Letters?
The “Should Readers be Exempt?” concept came from my editorial space in the newsletters, after the stories. It was brought up by a guy named Randy in Florida. I published his letter in the 18 June 2006 issues — first in the Premium edition, and then in the free edition.
I’ve thought many times about upgrading to the premium edition, but every time I get really close to doing so I come across something similar to what I read in [a recent] issue, [where you wrote]: “…they made themselves look like fools. Proving once again, there’s no way I’ll ever be short on material for this column…”. I don’t understand how you can stay in business yet repeatedly and regularly insult your customers. Every time it happens I have to stop and think to myself that I’m glad I’m not paying for this. Please don’t misunderstand; I agree completely with what you’re saying. I have no doubt it’s frustrating to get so many emails about an error when it’s already posted on the errata page. Regardless, it doesn’t seem appropriate to publicly denigrate the people who pay for your service. –Randy, Florida
There are two key messages in Randy’s note: 1) He “completely agrees” with what I’m saying, but 2) I should excuse the occasional stupid letters from readers because, well, they’re my readers!
Seems to me that if you “completely agree” with what I’m saying in True, you should support True, or at least endeavor to understand the points raised. (And there are plenty of ways to support it that have nothing to do with spending money upgrading to Premium.)
It’s actually quite rare that “the people who pay” are the ones sending stupid letters, but even then I don’t let it influence my decision to run the letter (and reply to it!) when it happens.
I told Florida Randy that “The reason I am successful is I say what needs to be said, no matter who is involved. If all I produced was a namby-pamby PC-driven drivel, then I would be out of business.”
Randy replied, “I do enjoy your work, but such cheap shots have cost you this reader’s premium upgrade since pretty much the time you started offering premium upgrades.”
Hold On There!
They’re not “cheap shots,” they’re telling it like it is. And readers have made it clear they like it when I tell it like it is — that I don’t pull my punches. Far from making my business suffer, it’s thriving, so on that measure I’m doing it right.
But more than that, I couldn’t respect myself if I made fun of every kind of foolishness except those committed by my readers.
I mean, what kind of integrity would I have if $10 for a sample subscription bought me off? Not to mention that I’d be accepting a few pieces of silver to deprive the readership of a significant source of entertainment!
But then, I thought, maybe I’m wrong; I’m happy to admit it when I am. Should readers be exempt? So I asked the Premium subscribers — “the people who pay” — to weigh in here. I asked them what they thought about this, and promised to post a representative sample of those letters, no matter which way they argued the question.
I got a lot of response, so this page is long. I think it’s worth your time to read it — especially the second “pro” letter!
By the time I selected the representative letters for this page (about a week after asking the question), I had 149 “pro”, one “con”, and six in-between. As expected, most are intelligent, thoughtful, and sometimes even very entertaining. Here are just two of the “pro” letters.
I completely agree with the way you deal with letters from the “idiot” crowd. Here’s why:
- People need to get used to being challenged when they say something dumb. Otherwise, how will they ever learn?
- You show how people can find insults where none were intended — one side-effect of the PC movement.
- You use facts to make your points rather than ducking an issue or making up some convoluted explanation for your position.
- You don’t go off on angry rants. You make your point concisely and let it stand on its own.
- You do not come off with an attitude of infallibility. As you stated, you are “happy to admit” when you are wrong. Something the average person writing to complain is unwilling to do.
All in all, I would hold up any of your exchanges with people who feel insulted or injured by you as a primer for how to deal with disagreement in general. I learn a lot every time you show us how to disagree with someone and not let your side devolve into something ugly. As for alienating your customer base? I’ve always thought responding in the way you do to this type of letter was an excellent way to weed out people you wouldn’t want as customers anyway. If you catered to everyone’s personal whims, you wouldn’t have much left to write about. –Dustin, California
This one’s not from a Premium subscriber — he wrote after the free edition came out, but it’s really worth reading anyway:
I am terminally ill and all my money goes to doctors so I will never be able to get the paid subscription. The people who complained about your articles: well, they’re idiots. Sticks and stones may break their bones but words hurt their itty bitty feelings. AWWWW poor widdle people. Jeez, I hate whiners. Anyway I enjoy your letter and as long as you keep a-sendin’ I’ll keep a-readin’. Thanks for being real in such a fake society. Thanks for being you and putting a smile on my face. I don’t get those too often anymore. –Butch, Texas
Kinda puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it? (And yes, a Premium subscriber who saw Butch’s letter upgraded him for a year as an anonymous gift.)
There was only one con, in fact, but in the interest of fairness I’ll run it:
Be nicer to the readers; save your perceptive rapier remarks for the outsiders. –Tom, Pennsylvania
Not terribly irate, is it?
Only six letters got classified as “in between”, and they all said essentially the same thing. I chose one as representative:
I hesitated before writing this mainly because I have crossed wits with you several times in the past and come away feeling the worse for it! However I wouldn’t feel true to myself if I didn’t at least try to explain my unease with your treatment of readers. The issue isn’t that you call attention to the fool things that people do or say (hell, that’s why I subscribe!). To me, it’s the way that you relay it to your audience, the way that you wrap that correspondence with often heavily barbed statements or slightly tongue-in-cheek comments. Should readers be exempt, no definitely not. But I would ask that you report them in the same way as your main items, brief and leaving it to your readers to draw their own conclusions. –Jim, United Kingdom
One reader took me to task for even suggesting that I “could be wrong” about this. He said I’m obviously not wrong and shouldn’t even admit to the possibility.
I absolutely do feel I have an accurate reading on True’s readers and didn’t figure I was wrong. But I think it would be foolish to insist that I was right no matter what; then I’d be in the same boat as some of the “idiots” who write — not willing to test the theory that there just might be something I’ve overlooked. So indeed my question to “the paying customers” was genuine, even though I did anticipate the answer — I know my readers a lot better than “Randy in Florida” thinks.
But I’m still surprised how one-sided the answer was. The most “con” letter I got was not very bad. The “in-betweens” essentially said that I of course should continue, but maybe I could be a little nicer about it. To err is human, after all.
The error I think I make is to not be as clear as I should be about when it is I’m ranting about the reader’s logic or thought process, and when I’m ragging on them personally. I try to do the latter only when I lay clear and obvious evidence in front of them, but they refuse to look at it in favor of their own preconceived notions. But sometimes I fail when I try, since I’m human too.
So my conclusion is, the readers absolutely do enjoy my holding readers up to the same standards as the rest of humanity, but even though the vast majority doesn’t see any need for change, I still pledge to be better at separating the message from the messenger in the future.
Florida Randy Replies!
I heard back from Randy in Florida after he read this page “from top to bottom,” including all the comments. A lot of you won’t be surprised to hear he still doesn’t get it. My exchange with him is below, starting with Randy in Florida:
I am not at all surprised by your results given the way you obfuscated the question. You still COMPLETELY miss the point.” That’s an awfully interesting thing for him to say, considering I quoted him directly in asking the question. He continued: “You led people to believe we were talking about situations such as a reader supporting an idiot school board member defending ZT. I was talking about the unnecessary cheap shots you take at readers for trivial things such as sending you an error when it’s already on the errata page.
Yet the responses from readers, which are published here, were quite clear in what they were talking about — no one even mentioned ZT. (And there he goes with his “cheap shots” bit again. Sheesh.)
I asked Randy if he actually read the page. He replies:
Yes I read the page, top to bottom, and yes the page is about readers, what they say, and what you say back. That’s my point!!! My complaint was NEVER about the readers, what they say, and what you say back! My complaint was the cheap shots you take at readers’ behaviors (specifically, sending you email about errors that are already posted on the errata page) that is unrelated to the stories or the readers’ comments about the stories. Why can you not see the difference?
Apparently, Randy, for the same reason you can’t see the similarity. This is about calling the readers on the carpet for doing dumb things — in relation to the Errata page, in relation to not checking the Errata page (which comes to my attention — duh! — when they write me about it!), in relation to the stories, in relation to anything to do with True.
But you want to be more specific? You bet! Let’s get back to your original statement when you first wrote to complain: “I don’t understand how you can stay in business yet repeatedly and regularly insult your customers.”
I explained that. That wasn’t good enough, so I invited my readers to explain it. You say you read their responses on this page, yet you still don’t get it.
It doesn’t matter what the readers do that’s dumb; if they do it, they don’t just put up with me replying to it, they demand that I do, and in the way I have been doing it. And they say that overwhelmingly.
You “don’t understand” how I can stay in business with that policy? That’s fine; you’re not required to — even if the vast majority of your fellow readers clearly do understand it.
The bottom line is, it’s not a matter of my business suffering because of it, but rather it’s why my business thrives, and (as I explained when you first wrote) if I didn’t do it, then business would suffer. I don’t care if you don’t understand that, but for you to insist that I’m wrong about it, when I’m the one who fills out the tax forms, is (yep!) just plain stupid.
A Sad P.S.
Florida Randy just couldn’t take it — once he saw this he resorted to childish name-calling. He said he’d been reading for over a decade, but True isn’t “as good today as it was a few years ago” (sure: it was great for Randy right up to the point he was featured himself!); “I just don’t think you’re smart enough” to know I’ve “lost the argument,” and I’m “a perfect asshole.”
If that makes Randy feel good about himself so he can continue along, that’s fine. But to insist that I have to subscribe to his worldview is pretty silly. As I’ve said, I’m not going to hold my punches.
Would you really have it any other way?
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