Saturday, October 29, 2016

Faint Praise

My mother always used to say that if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all. (She also told me to put on a sweater when she was cold, but that's another discussion.) And in general, that's good advice in just about all aspects of your personal life, whether it's friends, family or casual acquaintances you meet. To be clear, she never said you can't THINK what you want about someone else, just that you shouldn't SAY it. And were she holding forth on that maxim today, she might also note that you shouldn't put it in an email either, as John Podesta can surely attest.

But in other areas, speaking the truth about things is not just encouraged but required. In a work situation, personal appraisals including areas ripe for improvement are part of the normal routine, both to those below you and above you. If you're a critic, whether it's of restaurants or movies, it's your job to cast a sharply-focused eye, highlighting highlights, but also calling out the lowlights as well. And if you're running for office, say President of the United States, well, let's just not go there.

Still, there are ways of being critical while being clever. It's those "You're a lot smarter than I thought!" or "I'd glad you're not so concerned about a particular style" type of comments that make you say "Thanks!" until you think a little deeper. Some call them backhanded compliments, others speak of damning with faint praise. Either way, they are so much more effective than the comeback of "Wrong" as practiced by a certain public figure these days.

You can find them almost anywhere. From Shakespeare: "You kiss by the book" from "Romeo and Juliet, or "If I can remember thee I will think of thee" in "All's Well That Ends Well." Loads in TV and movies, such as in the classic "Amadeus" with Mozart's reaction to Salieri's composition: "I never knew that music like that was possible." There's the motherlode of "Futurama" and Captain Zap Brannigan: "I like your style, you remind me of a younger me! Not much younger mind you; maybe even a few years older." They even crop up in the legal world: a lawsuit against Apple's iPad by Samsung was decided in Samsung's favor by the judge who said their product was "not as cool." And then there is that proverbial elementary school teacher report card comment, "rarely runs with scissors, does not eat too much paste".

This all came to mind when I read the review in The New York Times of the new Pixel smartphone by Google. Writer Brian Chen wasn't overly impressed, but he tried to give it a positive spin, especially considering the current context: "This holiday season, all Google's new phone has to do is not burst into flames. That's because the Pixel is, relatively speaking, mediocre. It is slower than Apple's iPhone 7, the camera doesn't look as good and the built-in artificially intelligent virtual assistant is still fairly dumb. But hey, the it probably won't burn down your garage or injure a child. So if you prefer Android and are hooked on Google, then you probably won't regret buying the Pixel."

Not too inspiring. Still, it's better than the alternative. If you've been on an airplane recently, then you're heard the cabin crew go through their usual "here're the exits, use your seatbelt, put up your tray tables" spiel. But then then append the latest critical safety instruction: "If you have a Samsung Note 7, the FAA says you must turn it off, remove the battery and don't put it in your checked luggage." They may as well add, "In fact, please ring your call button immediately for a bucket of ice water to dump it into." In that light, "won't regret buying it" is almost a rave.

I for one might still consider the Pixel. After all, I'm the target audience: I'm very invested in the Google ecosystem, I haven't drunk the Apple Kool-Aid, I'm not trying to take anything more than snapshots, and I do like a phone that won't explode. It calls to mind a slogan an old friend once suggested for a company we worked with that had the same tenor and tone: "Where good enough is our very best."


Marc Wollin of Bedford just wants a phone that works. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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