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3 language experts try to make sense of a credit card contract

An ex-spy, a rocket scientist and an etiquette expert wade into a document

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CreditCards.com Readability Study finds major card issuers' contracts unreadable by most Americans

Wonder why you can't seem to make it through your credit card agreement? It's heavy reading: A CreditCards.com analysis found that the average U.S. credit card agreement is written on a 12th grade reading level, three grades above the average American's reading level.

How would three language experts from very different walks of life react to some devilishly dense credit card contract language?

We polled a rocket scientist, an etiquette expert and a CIA agent turned best-selling thriller writer for their thoughts on these excerpts from a credit card agreement from Compass Bank. The bank, according to CreditCards.com's analysis of more than 1,200 credit card agreements on file with the Federal Reserve, had two of the most unreadable 10.

Calculation of Minimum Payment: If the New Balance shown on your periodic statement is less than $10, your Minimum Payment Due for that billing cycle will be your New Balance. If the New Balance shown on your periodic statement is $10 or more, the Minimum Payment Due for that billing cycle generally will be the greater of $10 or two percent (2%) of the New Balance, rounded to the nearest dollar (up for any fractional amount of 50¢ or more, and down for any fractional amount of less than 50¢), plus any unpaid Minimum Payments Due from previous billing cycles, and any amount by which the New Balance exceeds your credit limit. However, if, at the end of any billing cycle, any Finance Charges are assessed on your Account at an Annual Percentage Rate in excess of 23.49%, then the Minimum Payment Due for that billing cycle will be $15 plus any Finance Charges that have accrued during that billing cycle, any unpaid Minimum Payments Due from previous billing cycles, and any amount by which the New Balance exceeds your credit limit. 

Overlimit Fee: For every billing cycle, we will charge an overlimit fee of $39 at the time your Account balance or Cash Advance balance goes over the applicable credit limit. We will charge only one overlimit fee for any single billing cycle. We may charge this fee even if your balance is over your credit limit as a result of a transaction we authorized or a Finance Charge or fee we imposed, even if you have not been billed for that Finance Charge or fee. We may charge an overlimit fee at the beginning of a cycle if your Account balance is over your credit limit, even if we receive your Minimum Payment Due for the previous cycle by the Payment Due Date and there are no new transactions on your Account during the later cycle.

New Jersey Residents: Because certain provisions of this Agreement are subject to applicable law, they may be void, unenforceable or inapplicable in some jurisdictions. None of these provisions, however, is void, unenforceable or inapplicable in New Jersey.

Here's what our test panel of language experts said:

BARRY EISLER:
Undercover CIA agent turned best-selling author
One-time CIA operative turned author, Barry Eisler

Clear writing was taught at the CIA, says the former undercover operative turned best-selling author, whose latest thriller is titled "Inside Out." Says Eisler, quoting Einstein, "Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Barry Eisler
"God, what gobbledygook!" Barry Eisler roars amid the din of a coffee shop, his movable HQ on a national tour to promote his latest thriller, "Inside Out." "This is standard horrible spaghetti language drafted by a lawyer without competence or common sense."

Eisler knows whereof he speaks. For three years, he was undercover with the CIA Directorate of Operations. He worked as a technology lawyer in Japan, where he earned a black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center, and a startup executive in Silicon Valley. He has successfully distilled those experiences into his best-selling John Rain thriller series.  

Our three contract excerpts instantly reconnected Eisler with an impassioned paper he wrote during his days as a technology lawyer.

"The intention of this kind of language is to make anybody who looks at it not read it, or to send you running in the opposite direction. But either way, you won't read it, and even if you try to read it, you're not going to understand what it means," Eisler fumes.

"But if there's ever a problem, they're covered because they'll be able to say, 'Well look, the fine print right here clearly says...' But it doesn't clearly say anything and the hapless public will not ever have read it, or even if they try to read it, they'll never be able to understand it. And that's what that is intended to do."

Presumably, intelligence work was the opposite?

"You're quite right; clear writing was taught and valued at the CIA. There is a lot wrong with U.S. intelligence, but as far as teaching people to write clearly about who, what, where, when and why, they did that part pretty well," Eisler says.

Advice for future credit card contract writers?

"Einstein said, 'Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.' That's what you want to go for, and what too few people do. It takes some effort."

ANNA POST:
Fifth generation etiquette expert, speaker, author
Etiquette expert and author Anna Post

Clear writing is just plain considerate of others, says Anna Post, who should know: She's the great-great granddaughter Emily Post, the pioneer of mass politeness. Issuing edicts on etiquette has become a tastefully appointed cottage industry for the family. With her sister Lizzie Post, Anna has written "Emily Post's Great Get-Togethers."

Anna Post
So what kind of first impression did our credit card contract excerpts make on an etiquette expert?

"Annoying," she admits.

"So much of etiquette boils down to communication. The better the communication, the less chance people will perceive rudeness. That's why I get so annoyed when someone doesn't communicate well with me," she says.

Post, a popular guest speaker at business etiquette seminars and author with her sister Lizzie of "Emily Post's Great Get-Togethers" says speaking in unintelligibly dense prose can backfire on any company.

"Etiquette is all about making choices that build good relationships with people," she says. "As a company, do you really want your clients annoyed with you?"

Granted, we live in litigious times; a certain amount of six-point legalese is expected. But Post says it need not be presented in such a way as to make the customer feel mentally deficient.

"People aren't stupid. If you deliberately write in a way that makes me feel stupid, at the end of the day is that my fault or yours? No one likes being made to feel the fool," she says.

"What's worse, it makes people question whether there is something in there, that they're being tricked. Whether they are or not, that perception is a very dangerous one for credit card companies."

Her solution: Be kind and considerate to the reader.

"What if you had the English translation, like in high school Shakespeare class where you have the classical Shakespeare on one side and what it means in today's terms on the other? What would be so wrong with that?" she wonders.

STEVEN COLLICOTT,
Rocket scientist
Rocket scientist Steven Collicott

Steven Collicott has designed dozens of experiments for NASA,Steven Collicott goes weightless in a zero-G plane and has even flown in zero-G. He says that the language in the credit card agreement is reminiscent of another densely packed language he's familar with: computer programming code. 

Steven Collicott
It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to understand a consumer credit card contract, right?

But what would an actual rocket scientist make of our three credit card contract excerpts?

"I've read things far worse than this," admits Dr. Steven Collicott, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University. "If this were in aerospace, a lot of these things would be replaced by acronyms that you'd have to look up; New Balance would be NB, Minimum Payment Due would be MPD and so on."

In fact, he finds the legalese reminiscent of a much different use of language.

"The writing structure reminds me of the conditional statements in a computer code, the 'if, then' type of statements," he says. "If you were coding the financial part of this, it reads like a specification for the computer programmer."

Collicott has designed dozens of experiments aboard the International Space Station and numerous NASA spaceflights. He's even flown in zero-G aboard the KC-135A Air Force tanker nicknamed the "vomit comet." Here's the video.

How does he rate the space agency for clarity?

"For the most part, it's pretty clear. Certainly there are benefits to being direct and clear. On the other hand, they're a federal agency, and when you get into contracting work, it can get pretty circuitous. On the technical end, it's pretty good, but on the legal end it gets well beyond these credit card statements."

Bottom line: Collicott gives Compass Bank's card contract a thumbs up, despite its master's-degree reading level.

Then again, he's a rocket scientist.

See related: MAIN STORY: Credit cards unreadable to 4 of 5 Americans, 10 most unreadable credit card agreements, 10 most readable credit card agreements, 10 wordiest credit card agreements, Readability of credit card agreements from biggest 20 banksHow credit card agreements' readability compares to familiar documents, Quotable: What lawmakers, consumer activists, bankers sayFederal database of credit card agreements not user friendly, Video: Consumers try in vain to understand credit card agreements

Published: July 22, 2010


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