devious, dishonest, deceitful, crooked, curmudgeon, cunning, sly, ruthless,
maligner, slanderer, glutton, unprincipled, greedy, sneaky, freeloader,
tyrannical, bully, liar--
honest, reasonable, just, lawful, compassionate, forgiving, tolerant, trustworthy,
generous, considerate, openhanded, candid, sincere, respectful--
What do all of these
words have in common? They are part of the vocabulary of fairness
and unfairness, a theme I’ve wanted to write about for a long time.
It’s common for children to protest, "That’s not fair!" Clearly,
they have an innate sense of fairness and believe that they have a right
to expect and demand it.
I think that fairness
(or its absence) plays a very significant part in our adult lives, as well.
Yet fairness seems to get scant thematic attention and consideration. I
know of hardly anything written specifically about it. When I searched
the Internet, I found very little mention of it: almost nothing about interpersonal
fairness or even about fairness in advertising or sales. What I did find
had a political perspective: fairness in the workplace, in taxation, in
media reporting, and in gender issues.
This essay is a modest
attempt to explore fairness, to validate our wish for fairness, and to
return it to our active vocabulary. Limited space necessitates that
it’s only a sketch. But I hope that it encourages you to reflect further
on how fairness (or its absence) affects your own life.
I believe that for all
of us it’s vitally important to be treated fairly and that fairness is
an essential constituent of a fulfilled life. Yet complaints about unfairness
seem to be ubiquitous in our everyday world, while concern about being
appears to be almost incidental.
In so many areas of
human interaction—such as advertising, sales, labour relations and politics,
and even in our intimate relationships—few who do the advertising, the
selling, the negotiating, the politicking, and the wooing seem to be concerned
about being fair. For good reason, we have been advised to be mistrustful
of those who bear gifts. And we tend to be surprised when we find that
someone with something to sell to us turns out to be trustworthy. (Do you
recall the old joke about automobile salesmen: "Would you want your daughter
to marry one?")
It seems to me that
the result of being treated unfairly so often is that we have become preoccupied
with it. I would say that most of what we see, hear, do and say—including
the content of news reports, books, television programs, movies, and conversations—actually
revolves around these twin issues of fairness and unfairness; take for
example, dramas about "law and order," news reports about slaughter in
Rwanda or Kosovo or negotiations to stop the fighting, the struggle of
Blacks, women and homosexuals for equal treatment, or friends complaining
about how they got taken by someone.
My recent reading of
the Psychology of Persuasion (Robert
Cialdini, Ph.D.) has increased my sensitivity to the variety of unfair
practices common in sales. I now see that such coercive tactics are perpetrated
almost everywhere and are by no means limited to professional sellers.
Some examples of these practices are:
Sadly, unfairness is
ubiquitous. We are surrounded by it. In labour negotiations it ‘s common
for both sides to demand more than they expect to get. In business we hear
about corporate espionage and cut-throat competition.
In Personal Relationships
(to fool you into believing that the price is particularly low, whether
it is or not.
"Starting at just
$2.00 Per Month" (Designed to draw you in, but in fact you most likely
won’t want the $2.00 item and what you will want costs considerably
more. But by then, you will probably be committed and are willing to pay
"Hurry, This Offer
Expires Soon"... "While Quantities last" (Designed to
create a sense of urgency and scare you into making a hasty decision to
buy—whether or not you need the particular item—by suggesting that you
soon won’t be able to buy the item at this price.)
Selling an item that
has some unapparent but significant flaw(s), without mentioning this to
the prospective buyer.
Advertising a computer
with a picture of a complete system and with a conspicuously low price,
with "monitor not included" obscurely placed in very small print.
(Again, to draw you in through the impression that it will cost you less
than it actually will.)
Taking someone out to
dinner and a movie in order to create a sense of indebtedness, such that
he or she will feel an obligation to reciprocate with sex.
Buying her a gift when
you’ve done something that you expect will upset her, so that when you
confess what you’ve done she will feel guilty about being angry at you
and be conciliatory instead.
Telling a man you’ve
met at a social gathering that you’d like to hear from him, but giving
him a false phone number.
In politics, we are
bombarded with negative campaign ads and are characteristically presented
with slanted and incomplete information. In foreign relations we see a
succession of atrocities, the latest in Bosnia and Kosovo. In personal
relationships, we see men lying to women to get sex (and vice versa) and
both genders concealing information they believe might scuttle the relationship.
I suggest that fairness
is essential whenever one person’s behaviour impacts someone else (which
I would argue is always true—something not noticed by many people, and
of little apparent concern to many others).
I think that we can
shine a little light on fairness by looking at how we drive our cars. Driving,
like life, is an inherently dangerous activity. When we drive, tons of
metal are hurtling along, in imminent danger of colliding and causing damage,
injury and death. Driving fairly involves recognising and being considerate
of other drivers’ needs. Most drivers grasp this and drive fairly. Among
other things, this involves signalling intention to change lanes, not cutting
in front of other cars, adhering to the alternating pattern when merging
lanes, switching to low beams in consideration of oncoming traffic, taking
care that your car is in good repair, not driving "under the influence,"
obeying the "rules of the road," and so on.
So what does
this say about being fair? I suggest that being fair means considering
both one’s own and the other person’s concerns; that fairness is the "lived
out" concern for the desires and fortunes of both one’s self and
the other person, a stance which helps both act in their own best interests,
and which almost always benefits everyone.
I think that we have
an intuitive sense of what it means to be fair and unfair. We know that
it’s fair to keep promises and unfair to not keep them ("You promised!")
We know it’s fair to share the bed or the food and unfair to hog them.
We know it’s unfair when someone lies to us or doesn’t take us seriously.
We know it’s unfair when someone takes what belongs to us without our permission.
We recognise that it’s unfair when someone "sneaks" into line ahead of
Of course, most of us
want other people to be fair with us. But I think that most of us want
to be fair, as well, and that when we trust that we’ll be
treated fairly we are likely to reciprocate. There is evidence, for instance—with
regard to "white collar" theft, one of the largest categories of crime—that
when people believe that they’ve been treated unfairly by their employer,
they often will steal, but only enough to "balance the scales," even when
they have the opportunity to steal more.
Acting to get what I
without also genuinely considering what you want is unfair
and likely to be experienced as such. Perhaps less apparent, my sacrificing
fulfilment of my desires in order to fulfil yours,
also unfair. This is because sacrifice is inevitably a reluctant
I sacrifice out of a fear that you or others will negatively judge and
then harm or abandon me if my reaching for what I want could interfere
with your getting what you want; I really don’t accept not getting what
I want and inevitably resent you for it. (We call people like this, "martyrs.")
My sacrificing inevitably robs me of what I want, while burdening
guilt and resentment (for making me feel guilty).. (Please note that "sacrificing"
is not the same as making a willing
"in good faith"—to forego what I want in order to help you fulfil your
It’s unfair, then, to
force something upon someone or to try to convince someone to do something
that he or she does not want to do, or that you know is not in his
or her best interest. (I can think of one exception here: when
someone is incompetent to make choices that are in his or her best interest.
But this requires first obtaining competent consultation to ensure that
such efforts are truly in the other person’s best interest, explaining
to the other person, apologising to him or her, and taking steps to assure
that such assumption of control is a very rare event.)
It’s also unfair to
knowingly provide someone with distorted, false, or misleading information
or to withhold information. It’s unfair, as well, to wilfully harm someone.
This includes punishing, teasing, fooling, cheating, robbing or taking
advantage of someone’s shortcomings.
I suggest that the basis
for most Americans’ dissatisfaction with the recent effort to impeach President
Clinton is their realisation of its unfairness. They recognise that he’s
done something reckless and disturbing. But they object to the unfairnessof
the effort to remove him from office, which seems to be based more on political
considerations than on a desire for justice.
Fairness is a fragile
structure. When others are unfair to us, we are likely to feel hurt, anxious,
scared and angry, and to try to protect ourselves by defending or
attacking: by also acting unfairly. Unfairness, then, tends to
We act unfairly, then,
when we’re afraid that others are acting or will act without care for us.
Those who have not been treated fairly as children are likely to succumb
to unfairness when they are adults: to act unfairly and to reciprocate
in kind when treated unfairly.
Ironically, any such
effort to keep the outcome from not being in one’s best interest is doomed
to make matters worse. This is because it is an effort to control
This is the case whether the effort to control is through physical force
(such as hitting) or verbal or other coercions (such as threatening, making
demands, breaking contracts without concern about the disturbing effect
on the other, or omitting or withholding information, or providing false
information.) For example, if you knew I had a cold, you would likely want
to avoid kissing me, sharing the same slice of pizza, or perhaps even shaking
my hand. Were you to discover that I had a cold and hadn’t informed you,
you are likely to conclude that in putting you in jeopardy I had acted
unfairly. You would see my concealment as interfering with your being able
to act in your best interest and as a disturbing failure to care about
In my view, any attempt
to control someone is always unfair (with the one exception already noted).
It is always an attempt to avoid experiencing pain by heading off potentially
painful events, like being refused, punished, cheated, hurt, or abandoned.
I think that most advertising,
sales, negotiating, politicking, courting, and even friendships commonly
involve such attempts to control. In advertising, sales, or courting, for
example, it is a common practice to give something to someone—a small pencil
by a magazine, some personalised return address labels by a veterans’ group,
or an elegant dinner by a would-be suitor—with the intention of creating
an indebtedness, such that the other person feels obligated to reciprocate,
perhaps by buying something, making a charitable contribution being sexual,
or returning an invitation to dinner.
It seems to me that
people’s choice to be unfair involves the false premise that "the
end justifies the means." For example, when I was a young graphics
designer, I was assigned to design a brochure to recruit men for a career
driving a bread truck. I was called upon to produce a section with drivers’
"testimonials" extolling the virtues of the career. My boss insisted that
we merely make it all up—the names, testimonials, and even the signatures.
I want to assert strongly
that whenever we act on the basis of the end justifying the means, we will
always be unfair and—even though we might attain short-term gains—we will
inevitably reap long-term losses. In this case, many of the
men who took the job influenced by the false testimonials are likely to
have discovered that the job was not so great (the reason for the shortage
of drivers in the first place?) and to have become dissatisfied and resentful
about having been fooled. Further, this is likely to have diminished the
level of trust of everyone involved. It would move drivers to distrust
management and management to judge drivers—many of them are likely to quit
after learning what the job is really like—to be unreliable. And those
who perpetrated the deception are likely to find it harder to trust that
there actually are others who are honest. For my part, when someone tries
to sell me something, I tend to be apprehensive (not too unrealistically)
about being deceived. Unfairness is inevitably self- and other-defeating.
The commonly accepted
dynamic of selling and negotiating is "I’ll do my best to get the
most from you and you’ll do your best to get the most from me."
It is the competitive stance. This was the case, for example, when I tried
to refinance my mortgage, the agent made sure I knew that my new monthly
payment would be decreased even though the new loan amount would be larger
than my present one. What he didn’t tell me was that in spite of the reduction
in monthly payment, the increase in loan amount would result in a much
larger payout over the life of the loan. (Fortunately, I discovered this
fact before it was too late and succeeded in finding a mortgage elsewhere
that will truly save me money.)
The competitive stance
does not recognise our connection to one another—our interdependence. In
there are necessarily winners and losers and it’s rarely
of concern to the winners how the losers are affected. For instance, in
this stance, if you’re selling a house, you try to get the highest price
you can. Meanwhile, as a prospective buyer I try to pay the lowest price
I can. In the process, we are competitors. This is true whether I’m buying
or selling automobiles, computers or design skills, or negotiating wages
or a repair job.
We readily witness the
competitive stance in the cut-throat competition that characterises business
(e.g., the computer and software industry). We watch daily, as though
we were mere spectators in an ancient coliseum, as one company devours
another, as Microsoft and Netscape contend in a battle to the death, as
companies bleed to death in bankruptcy, get swallowed up by other companies,
or succumb to plummeting stock prices, and workers are put out of work.
We witness the mutual destruction of labour and management, as well, that
takes place when workers go on strike.
We are likely to see
the same competitive structure and inherent destructiveness when we look
at relations between the genders. (When I speak of structure, I am speaking
of the particular way in which people relate to one another.) This was
well-characterised in such movies as "The War of the Roses." I suggest
that it’s not an accident that it is often called "the Battle of
In my view, competition
is inherently unfair. A common characteristic of the competitive
stance is concealing, distorting, and/or falsifying information that could
otherwise be of benefit to the other company or person. ("Does Macy’s
Furthermore, the competitive
stance is characterised, at best, by short-term gains and
losses. It is part of an escalating vicious circle in which one
early casualty is trust: Having had my trust shattered in one relationship,
I am liable to enter each subsequent relationships more mistrustful than
in the prior one and more defensive (or
And it is addictive, as well, to those who participate in it. Sports and
gambling are two competitive venues where this is easily visible.
I want to shed light
on what I believe is a far better structure. I suspect that if this is
your first exposure to it, you will understandably be dismissive. But I
really want you to consider it.
We tend to see competition
as inevitable and as a good thing— even as we acknowledge the unavoidable
damage that it causes. What we tend to overlook in all this is that there
is another structure that is possible, one which is satisfying for
everyone involved, one in which the means are commensurate
with the ends, and one which leads to increasing rather than eroding
trust. It is a cooperative structure. Fairness is the hallmark
of such a structure.
the practitioner is of utmost significance here. The competitive practitioner—whether
sales person or wooer—intends to get a foot in the door in order to "sell:"
to coerce if necessary and to "conquer." (Is it any wonder, then, that
so many men get violent with women?) From the competitive perspective,
selling is a challenge in which the seller’s intention is to overcome all
of the prospect’s objections, no matter what. (Sales people actually attend
classes and workshops in which they learn ever more cunning ways to overcome
From the cooperative
perspective, the seller aims to act in the prospective buyer’s best interest..
The intention of the cooperative practitioner is to inform,
not to overcome objections. He or she begins by asking permission to inform
the prospective "buyer" about the "product" and to examine the buyer’s
needs in order to help determine whether the product is of sufficient value
for him or her to "buy" it. Central to the cooperative stance is the
dialogue. This almost inevitably results in long-term
gains, even though there may be losses in the short-term.
I want to make it clear
that I am not saying that there’s something wrong with trying to influence
someone—for example, to avoid an oncoming car, to stop bothering you, to
pay attention to what you’re saying, or to influence a prospective buyer
to consider the value of the product you have for sale. There is
wrong with doing so coercively.
What distinguishes constructive
from destructive attempts to influence is your intention.
When your intention is to inform (after being invited in,
of course) in order to provide safety and to help the other person determine
what’s in his or her best interest, your attempts to influence will probably
be constructive. As a result, the other person will gain trust in you,
will be unlikely to become scared of you and try to evade you when you
come into view, and is likely to seek you out when in need of supplies,
accessories, an upgrade, or some TLC.
On the other hand, when
your intention is to sell, you become destructive, since
you are attempting to get people to do what is not necessarily in their
best interest, and since you unavoidably step outside the dialogue:
other person becomes an object that you are trying to manipulate, without
concern for his or her needs and goals, in order to achieve your own ends.
expresses itself as various forms of coercion, such as threatening, or
omitting or distorting information. For instance, the ad for a product
I was recently interested in prominently displayed the price as $67.84,
but it was difficult to find the "small print" specifying that the cost
of shipping is $23.95. All this in order to influence the other person
to come to conclusions that he or she might not otherwise come to and which
may not be in his or her best interest.
Advertising and marketing
stand as silent models not only for how we do business, but for how we
often treat one another, as well. I’ve already pointed out some of the
deceptions and misdirections advertisers use to influence their readers/viewers/listeners.
There are others. For instance they describe similar products in different
ways, so that it’s difficult for the prospective buyer to compare them.
Or they advertise a product with an attractive low price in order to draw
the customer in, at which time the customer discovers that there are drawbacks
to the product which can be rectified only by buying a more expensive product
(It’s called "bait and switch.") Or they draw you in by advertising
a product at a low price and only then do you discover that some essential
components are options which add to the price. (On the basis of the principles
of "contrast" and "commitment" you are likely to then see the $200 additional
cost for the monitor that wasn’t included as an acceptable add-on for a
computer that was advertised at $1,099. There are many studies showing
that this practice coerces the shopper into a commitment to buy that he
or she might otherwise not have made: You are now likely to accept the
$1,299 cost, even though you wouldn’t have done so if you had initially
seen this particular computer advertised, complete with monitor, for $1,299.
In addition, making
the price $1,099 instead of $1,100 is yet another way that
advertisers attempt to covertly influence—to fool—you into believing that
you’ll be paying less than you actually are. Advertisers know that we have
a strong tendency to see $1,100 as a significantly higher price than $1,099,
which is why this practice is so universal. In my view, though, these practices
are no more or less than larceny.
From an evolutionary
perspective, it has not been very long since the days of the "herd"—when
there was survival value in doing things because others were doing them
and in considering those outside the family or clan as dangerous and treating
them with wariness—and of the "alpha male"—when there was survival value
in individuals vying for power and rank.
It seems to me that
the advent of language has brought about profound and awesome new possibilities
that few of us recognise. For example, it is now possible—through dialoguing—to
substantially establish and grow trust, to engage in conflict fairly, and
to nurture care. These are not only new possibilities, but, given
the central presence of language in our lives, compelling and
In other words, language has given birth and meaning to fairness.
To those who assert
that competition is inevitable, I say that this is not because of how people
inherently are, but because of the prevailing social structure
through which they grow up and continue to have to deal with one another.
It seems to me that the solution is not to cling unyieldingly to the competitive
model, but to explore ways to transform the cultural givens.
with unfairness inevitably requires my being fair, on the
one hand, and my engaging in the dialogue on the other. Fairness requires
that I eschew trying to control others, that in my dealings with them I
intend to inform rather than sell or force.
(And it follows that fairness to myself requires that I not try to control
or sell myself.) In practice, this means that I operate on the principle
of full-disclosure, of the "open- hand." Ironically,
this obliges me to risk not getting what I want.
I must urge a caution
here. Clearly, not everyone else is trustworthy. It could well be folly
to give information to someone who is out to take me. But the remedy is
not to be "closed," secretive or deceptive. What’s called for is competence
in recognising when someone is and is not trustworthy, in seeking reliable
sources of information, in distinguishing which information when revealed
might endanger and which might protect, in dialoguing with the people involved,
and in recognising when to leave.
I think we’ve all become
jaundiced and numbed by the commonplace falseness and dishonesty on the
part of those who try to coerce us to get what they want. Nevertheless,
I believe there are a number of ways—many of them relatively simple and
straightforward—to gain protection from such coercions. Part of the solution
is interpersonal, part political, part regulatory.
I recommend a
"truth in advertising and sales" law (with "teeth" in it, backed by a "board
of enforcement"), I suggest that it require, among other things:
advertisers or sales people describe the advantages of a product, then
that they’re also required to describe the known downside and contraindications
of that product.
essential information that buyers are likely to need in order to make informed
choices be included in advertisements.
that what’s described,
including the price shown, clearly match what’s pictured. For example,
if it’s an advertisement for a computer, and a monitor is pictured, then
the price shown must include the monitor.
that when the price
of a product is shown, the total cost be the most prominently displayed
price (with "shipping and handling" already included). And that if the
cost of shipping and handling is displayed, it must be shown less prominently,
that it be clearly indicated
when less than a full "system" is being offered. (We would certainly object
if an automobile was being offered without it being clearly indicated that
it had no engine or steering wheel.)
not be ambiguous. For instance, if two computers are advertised as having
64MB RAM, it would have to be made clear whether they have EDO RAM or SDRAM.
that the same specifications
be described when several similar products are being exhibited. For instance,
in one ad, one computer is described as a "Pentium II with MMX" while the
one next to it is described as a "Pentium II with fan. Does the latter
also have MMX? If it does, this would have to be stated.
that the people who
appear in the ads (e.g., in print or on television) be certifiably qualified
to make the claims that they make and that they be who they purport to
be, not actors. (It irks me that actors make claims about products that—by
virtue of education or experience—they are not qualified to make; and that
they lie about their involvement with the products—which I’ve heard them
confess on quite a number of occasions.)
that the full names
(rather than just initials) of those who provide testimonials be required,
along with how and where to contact them, so that a would-be buyer could
dialogue with the testifier in order to make more competent decisions.
This, in fact, is what is already happening on the Internet, e.g., in "User
Laws, ethical codes,
codes of conduct and etiquette, and the like are attempts to codify and
enforce fairness. Although these can never be fully effective—since people
can and do break them, and no law or code can deal effectively with every
situation—strong enforcement efforts can educate us to our rights, can
help make fairness usual, rather than unusual and can encourage us to be
assertive in dealing with unfairness.
Some people might object
that such practices cannot be regulated without interfering with freedom
of speech, but it seems clear to me that freedom of speech is not freedom
to deceive. Although I realise that regulating coercive practices might
sometimes be difficult—for example, I think it will be difficult to regulate
the "99 cent" problem—similar regulating is already in force in the U.S.
with regard to selling real estate and drugs.
What we need is a public
that is educated about its rights and about deceptive practices, so that
it is no longer willing to be victimised by deceptive practices and willing
to demand changes from both the sellers and our political representatives,
who we can urge to make a code of fair practices. We can form political
action groups, and we can lobby our political representatives. We can educate
our friends, and learn from them, as well.
We can individually
and collectively inform advertisers and sellers of our dissatisfaction
with specific unfairness and of our unwillingness to do business with them
when they engage in such practices. We can stop doing business there if
they don’t comply (and we can let them know that we have indeed chosen
to buy elsewhere.) And when we find sellers that sell fairly, we can add
them to a list and publicise it, for example, on the Internet.
In our personal dealings
with one another, our intention must also be to inform, rather than coerce.
For example, if his aim is to get her into bed (or even just to go out
with him) by striving to overcome her objections or by lying to her, he
might indeed get her into bed (or to agree to a date), but the cost will
be considerable: In the face of his unfairness—of his aiming to get what
he wants without consideration for what she wants and for what’s in her
interest—her trust in him and in men in general will be diminished. She
will become less trustful and more wary, which will ultimately strengthen
his view that women are good for only one thing and her view that men only
want one thing and can’t be trusted to care. This, in turn, will diminish
the possibility that their relationship will be fulfilling and enduring,
and that any of their subsequent relationships can be successful.
In personal relationships,
Strive to be meticulously
Strive to be meticulously
fair to yourself.
Intend to be open, to
reveal what’s significant (always with the caveat that you have the right
to conceal if you sense that are in danger and that concealing will protect
Strive to keep your
contracts/promises. If you must break a contract, apologise (sincerely),
give an explanation and take steps to avoid breaking the contract in the
In any significant relationship,
make the issue of fairness and unfairness a theme of conversation and negotiate
beforehand how to deal fairly with any unfairness.
I think that most of
us tend to retreat from facing people who treat us unfairly.
Yet our not facing people at these times is the surest way to invite and
enable unfairness. It is only through
unfairness can be thematised
and realised and effectively
dealt with. Only in this way, can you discern whether the other person
has intended to be unfair and whether he or she cares about and is willing
to minister to your distressed self. Therefore:
At this point in my
journey, it seems ever more important that we learn to be fair and to require
fairness, lest the human species (and, indeed, many other species as well)
become a footnote in history.
Tell the other—concretely
and without blaming—that how you’re affected when he or she is being unfair
("When you make the decision about where we will go on vacation without
consulting me, I feel hurt and angry...")
E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People
by Stephen E. Linn
Essay from I Am What I Am! Essays on Relationships