Strangely, it seems like the more we try to simplify our lives, the more complex things become. It used to be that going to a movie meant buying a ticket, grabbing some popcorn, and enjoying the show. You didn’t need to sign a contract or give out any personal info (not even your postal code). Today, chances are that no matter how you get your entertainment, you’ve signed on to a labyrinthine contract you’ve never read?whether It’s for your video store membership, the credit card you use at the theatre, or the online account for downloading movies and video games.
Cell phones, reward cards, you name it. If someone’s promising to make your life easier, you can bet there’s an indecipherable contract in there somewhere. So what’s wrong with simply saying what they mean?and why aren’t more companies doing it?
Believe it or not, the push for plain language has been around for a while now. The Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) was formed in Canada in 1993. The US has a Center for Plain Language, and there’s even a PlainLanguage.gov website. Then there’s the Plain Swedish Group in (of course) Sweden. My favourite, though, has to be Scribes, The American Society of Legal Writers. Among other things, they aim to ?spread the growing scorn for legal writing that is archaic, turgid, obscure, and needlessly dull.? If they put that on a T-shirt, I’d buy it.
But in spite of efforts by governments and other organizations, most consumer contracts are still so hopelessly indecipherable that the average person has given up all but the most cursory glance at the first couple of paragraphs.
Using plain language doesn’t mean leaving out key information or treating consumers like idiots. But it does mean getting rid of doublespeak and putting important legal info in plain terms, whether You’re signing up for a new smart phone or joining a social network. And it is possible.
This Bloomberg Businessweek article is from 2009, so some of the examples might not be current, but at the time it was published ING Direct, an Internet-based bank, had whittled a home-loan agreement down to two pages. And thanks to a drive in the 1970s for clearer contracts, in 1975 ?Citibank reduced its standard consumer loan agreement from 3,000 words to 600.?
With enough consumers spreading the word and refusing to sign up for services with convoluted privacy and user agreements, you can bet that companies would react to a drop in their bottom lines. In fact, I might just go join one of those social networks right now. But don’t hold your breath?It’s probably going to take me a while to read through the terms of service first.