I have become weary of the unending hyperbole. Every ad. Every Instagram posting—it is the finest, the most exquisite, unique—one of a kind (hello, it means the same thing). Sometimes I read seven adjectives before I get to the noun it modifies—venerable, historic, breathtaking, refined, decadent, esteemed, noteworthy, rarified, bold yet understated. What? I long for the unadulterated concise sentence. Where is it?
The irony, of course, with all this extreme adulation about ice cream, dinner, jewelry, wine, automobiles, or cellphones is that the noun in question often disappoints. Truth be told, it would be hard for most anything to live up to such embellishments.
Many products we consume in today’s marketplace are of lesser quality than they were in bygone days. But you would never know it to hear the accolades on radio, TV, websites, and Instagram.
Harvard Business Review published an article sometime back about the eight dimensions of quality: performance, features, reliability, conformance, durability, serviceability, aesthetics, and perceived quality. For example, Japanese vehicles focus more on reliability and conformance and less on options and aesthetics. The premise of the article is that because it is difficult for a product to be ranked superior in every attribute, it is smart to focus on one or two attributes, while keeping the others in mind.
The issue of quality is interesting. Some mansions, automobiles, spirits, and purses sell for ridiculously expensive prices. When you read Friday’s Mansion section of the Wall Street Journal, you see stunning estates for $300 million, $240 million, $125 million. (Bill Gates’ house called Xanadu 2.0 is 66,000 square feet, is worth $127 million, and has an annual property tax bill of approximately $1,154 million. It has been reported that Melinda Gates never really liked the mansion that once caused her to have a “mini sort of personal crisis.”) A McLaren Speedtail, an exotic sports car, sold for $3 million at auction. A bottle of Macallan M Scotch sold in a Hong Kong-based auction for $628,205. Melania Trump’s Hermes Birkin purse was valued somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000. Louis Vuitton sells a skateboard for $8,250.
A while back I authored an article about the importance of quality versus quantity. I believe that to be true. But there is a dramatic difference between working hard and striving to own wonderful things that you care for and treasure for a lifetime and ostentatious consumption. This difference becomes even more disturbing when you consider the tremendous income inequality in this country. At the end of 2021, the top one percent in the U.S. owned. 32.3 percent of the nation’s wealth, one of the reasons you see such outrageous spending on items with astounding price tags.
My point is not only that it is mind boggling that someone would pay $100,000 for a purse. But that most ultra-expensive purchases are not worth their exorbitant price tags. Surely, a Birkin bag is well made. But is it worth 85 percent more than another handbag that is handcrafted from the finest Italian leather and costs $1.000? There comes a point of diminishing returns. A survey from the American Affluence Research Center found that the affluent believe most luxury brands are “overrated.”
Several surveys have been conducted where avid scotch drinkers taste test scotches ranging from modest prices to bottles worth several hundred dollars. Tasters could differentiate from the lower-cost scotches but had trouble discerning the expensive versus the ultra-expensive ones. Distinctions were small. The same goes for expensive wines. We all love a great crisp chilled white wine but how much more enjoyable is that $800 bottle?
All this excess makes one long for the short honest descriptions for which Hemingway was famous.
Here is a quote from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: “Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, … I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, do not worry. You have always written before, and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally, I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”
Let us celebrate the one true sentence—a rarity in this world of overwhelming hyped-up social media.
Maria Grant was principal-in-charge of a federal human capital practice at an international consulting firm. While on the Eastern Shore, she focuses on writing, reading, piano, gardening, and nature.