Inconvenient truths

My family was dining at a poolside café during a recent vacation when I noticed this extremely small print on the menu: "For your convenience, an 18 percent gratuity will be added to your check."

This chapped me. It wasn't the amount; I often tip 20 percent without batting an eye. Wasn't even the audacity of it, though it always rankles when restaurants presume that customers are tightwads who won't tip unless forced.

No, what griped me was the phrase "for your convenience." What's "convenient" about having an 18 percent gratuity sneaked onto your bill? Did the restaurant management think we customers would say: "Ah, they've included the tip! How convenient! Now I won't have to judge the service for myself or do any complicated math!"

Maybe, since it was a poolside café, they thought we'd all go mad, spinning around, trying to find tip money in our pocket-free swimsuits. Or, that we'd be too sunstroked to understand the subtle hints (greedy leers, reaching hands, dripping saliva) the waitstaff was throwing our way.

"For your convenience" is just another example of lame marketing spin. Corporate America takes us all for saps, and they think we'll fall for anything if it's labeled "convenient." This is the same reason that every bright-colored product package is splashed with words like "new!" or "improved!" or "easy-to-open!" when none of those things are true.

Any time you encounter the phrase "for your convenience," doesn't it really mean terribly inconvenient? "For your convenience, direct questions about this product to our corporate call center in Albania, between the hours of 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. on alternate Thursdays."

(If you read or hear "for your safety and convenience," look out. That usually means inconvenient and dangerous. For example, they always say on airplanes that your seatbelt should stay securely fastened "for your safety and convenience," when what they mean is: "We'd prefer that you be strapped into your seat, screaming, when the plane goes down in flames.")

When you encounter "for your convenience," it usually means something that's convenient and/or profitable for the corporation in question, not the consumer. "For your convenience, this automated teller machine accepts all debit cards for a charge of only $3 per transaction."

Or, the phrase is connected to a warning mandated by the corporate attorneys: "For your safety and convenience, do not ingest this product while operating heavy machinery near kindergartens."

Occasionally, the phrase is used to convey the message that you, the customer, are an idiot: "For your convenience, these hot dogs contain no actual dog. Enjoy!"

While it appears that companies are misusing the term "convenience," a little research finds mitigating circumstances, right in the roots of the word.

"Convenience," it turns out, comes from the Latin conve or "pay" and nience, which means "through the nose." Strictly speaking, the corporate spin doctors often use the term properly.

This usage explains the term "24-hour convenience store." At these small markets, you can "pay through the nose" anytime of the day or night for the same products available elsewhere for less.

Unless it's a much longer drive to the nearest supermarket, convenience stores don't make any sense. Many supermarkets are open 24 hours now, in case you get the midnight munchies, and most have "express lanes" where you can get checked out as quickly as you would at a convenience store.

Come to think of it, the only difference is that you have to walk farther in the aisles of a regular supermarket to get your midnight gallon of ice cream. If you're buying fattening food at midnight, you probably ought to be doing more walking.

For your safety and convenience.

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