A stranger in a strange land

“Yes please.”

A phrase I have always thought of as a polite and positive answer to a question that has been posed.

For example:

“Do you want salt and vinegar on your chips?”

“Would you like me to pour the wine?”

“Can I get you some more peas?”

“Yes please.”

“Yes please.”

“Absolutely, Yes please.”

“Do you need any help with your packing?”

“Er, no thanks I’ve only got a Kit-Kat and a can of coke, but thanks for asking”

Having spent quite a long time living outside the UK in the past few years, I always think I am prepared to pass as an average Englishman when I return for a visit, but somehow something always ends up highlighting me as an outsider. Very much like that scene in ‘The great escape’ when Gordon Jackson and Richard Attenborough get caught out getting on the bus by the cheapest trick in the book:

“Good luck!” Says the German in a thick English Accent

“Thank you” Replies Gordon Jackson, forgetting for a millisecond that he was pretending to be French.

(Oh Gordon you fool, you were so clever as Cowley in the Professionals, playing the straight man to Bodie and Doyle. How did you let the Germans trick you?)

It’s always the same, I always almost make it through a trip to England, battering off questions about music, television and popular culture, (just about to get on that bus to freedom) before someone sideswipes me with the most innocuous question that leaves me floundering and showing up as a fake Englishman.

“Hi mate, you all right? Excuse me. Sorry. Can I get a coffee please?”

I had spoken these words across the counter to the back of the guy busily working 3 meters away towards the rear of the fairly small, very empty, non-descript, non-branded coffee shop at the small equally un-notable village train station. This was possibly communicated at the wrong time as he was clearly busy manipulating something into the microwave, but I had certainly created sufficient noise as to  attract his attention enough to slow his work down to almost a standstill as he very carefully closed the door and meticulously punched the required numbers into the machine. Taking his time to wipe his hands on a tea towel, he approach me at the counter, and with hands placed, feet steadied, ignoring eye contact up until the very last minute, he raised his head to look at me face to face for the first time and said, (thank god it wasn’t “next” as I was the only person there and clearly had been the only person there for a long time, and I would have just jumped through the window or something.)

“Yes please”

He said it again, without a blink. Not, “Hi”, not “Hello”, not “How are you doing”, or “all right ‘mate’”, not  “Sorry didn’t catch that” or “absolutely do you want milk and sugar?” no, he said:

“Yes please”

For the second and I could tell, most definitely for the last time.

(Please bear with me on this one, it gets better than the last post (I think) or at least has a happier ending, though not to spoil it too much, I do get a coffee.)

And don’t misunderstand me, I didn’t want him for a second, to prostrate himself on his knees before me, clasping his hands together as he stared up at me through tear-stained eyes

“God-bless ya governor, thanks to the almighty that you should be coming in ‘ere to my ‘umble establishment and wanting to spend your hard earned pennies on a cup a char”

If he had, I would probably have jumped out of the window and run like the wind. He didn’t, he’d said “yes please” and now the pressure was on me.

And once again I find myself in a difficult situation, (it’s all relative) don’t get me wrong, I’m a (fairly) intelligent chap, and I can converse in English with most people, but honestly for a moment I was flummoxed. Was he politely answering my request in the affirmative? Had he miss-heard and thought that I had asked him if he needed any odd jobs doing around the place? And we stood there face to face, for an uncomfortable second. Racing through my mind was a desperate attempt to find the next words to respond to his statement, whilst I cannot begin to imagine what was going through his mind, he may have been weighing me up as a poorly prepared and indecisive robber, who was just about to ask him for all of his takings (which subsequently judging by the quality of his coffee, was more than likely about £2.50), or did he just think I was a loony.

“Yes mate?”

He patiently tries again, (all credit to him, for trying again, he probably thought I was a loony) and this time I get it. He is politely and affirmatively encouraging me, (and now with the friendly gesture of mate) to provide him with my order. The light bulb clicks on, and I politely enquire whether it would be absolutely possible and not too much trouble for him to furnish me with a coffee. He agrees, provides the aforementioned hot beverage, I pay, consume, it is awful, I leave. The end.

To be honest not the most amazing anecdote I have ever told, and certainly having taken the time to transcribe into words it stands as one of my more boring ones (of which there are many) however it is important, (to me anyway).

I’m not a Victorian gentleman, I’m 37, born in 75 (which was a crap year in Bordeaux by all accounts), too late to appreciate the fall out of the 60’s and the subsequent difficult years of the 70’s, getting  into music right at the turn of the 80’s with Gary Newman and Adam Ant as my saviours. Reaching my awkward early adult years just  as technology flourished behind me and children picked up how to use a mobile phone or remote control  as fast as using a dummy. I feel that as a child of the 70’s perhaps due to my own awkwardness (or my parents) or whatever I kind of fell in-between two enormously important periods of time. My computers were crap, my computer games were crap, my music was crap  and I grew out of them all  just before they began to become great.

I suffered the initial onslaught of mobile phones, when they were crap,  grew tired and resented them, and before I knew it, was far too behind to ever catch up when they became useful and cool. I’ve never typed LOL, or ROFL, in my life (in fact this is the first time I think I have ever knowingly typed them) I do know what they mean, I was alive when they were invented, however I missed that moment when I should have been using them, I appreciate the reason for their existence  and now feel I am too old to make that leap backwards.

In many ways I am a younger man than my years, but to be fair, and living in Africa hasn’t helped, I’m not necessarily older than my years, but certainly (it seems) behind the times somewhat in many areas of my life.

I realise that when I type “very funny!” into a text message it takes 11 characters, and LOL takes 3, for a “really funny!!” announcement I am using 14 as opposed to ROFL taking a mere 4, and I understand the reasons for their use. And to be fair I guess I don’t use them because I can afford not to, I have that kind of time and money for those extra bites of information that the younger generation seem not to have, and its rare you will ever see me rolling around on the floor laughing anyway. So I understand that I am behind the times with regards text messaging, in fact so far behind the times that for all I know LOL and ROFL are old hat and newer and cheaper and more abbreviated methods of expressing amusement are being used. I don’t know.

But, and this is really where I am eventually headed (thanks for your patience) when did the English language change so drastically that “Next” and “Yes please” become accepted, acknowledged and understood forms of greeting. Are they to save time and money? I’ve lived in Africa for a long time, and yes in Swahili to order a beer involves 2 minutes of greetings and 5 seconds of beer ordering and sometimes that is a pain, especially as that ordered beer could take several hours to be delivered, but English has never been like that, anything more than a  few words of greeting is more than necessary. When did this giant leap backwards in language first take place, and become the norm? Let’s return for a moment to my previous blog and example of the use of:

“next”

How did this come about, what’s the story behind “next”?  Did a crack-team of executives spend a sleep-free and  stressful weekend in Milton Keynes, surrounded by post-it notes and flip charts, hands permanently inked by marker pen, coffee cups strewn everywhere brainstorming the perfect greeting at an airline counter?

“What about Hello?” – “No, too personal”

“What about Hiya?” – “No, too colloquial?”

“What about How are you?” – “No too much like an invitation for conversation, it takes too long, what if the person is sick or depressed, it isn’t our place to put that kind of pressure on someone”

“How about Next?” – “Next? I like it, short, snappy, and to the point, it indicates movement, and fluidity, it’s a solution not a problem”

“What about the people at the start of the queue who aren’t, in theory, next?”

“Oh piss off Jeremy; do you have to argue with everything? This is Leicester all over again, do you think they’ll notice? They are the minority, there’s only one at the front of every queue, there’s hundreds behind them, ‘the majority’ and they’ll get the message if they know what’s good for them”

“Ok next it is? All agreed? Right let’s get to Weatherspoon’s for last orders”

And I’ve tried to beat the system, (admittedly failing at the airport counter) but I’ve had some small successes. I went into a Weatherspoon’s, after the encounter at the non-descript coffee shop. The girl behind the bar (dispensing with almost all the unnecessary pleasantries) simply said;

“Yes?”

To her credit the questioning inflection at the end assisted me in translating what she meant, so I responded:

“Fine thank you, how are you, how’s your day been?”

And  immediately I knew I had the upper hand, because she stood there bamboozled as the unexpected answer to her question was fired back at her. Bearing in mind she must only hear a very few number of actual words limited by the number of limited products on offer at the establishment, she was clearly not prepared for my cross examination, and had to really think. As the words were slowly absorbed by her brain she smiled, as if I had gifted her with a cheque for £12 and told her to buy something nice, she said:

“Do you know what? You’re the first person that asked me that, and well, I’m having a good day, and you’ve made it better, now then can I get you anything?”

(Excusing the fact that I was stood at her counter, and so clearly was in the business end of her getting something for me, I had definitely made an impression, I ordered a pint, and it was very expensive and lovely)

Of course in my internal parentheses I was mumbling that perhaps she would have nicer customers enquiring about her welfare more often if she dropped the yes, and tried speaking a few more words of English, but that didn’t matter, my work was done, and I didn’t want to burst her bubble.  I hoped I had planted a seed. Alas no, the next person and the one after that got the “Yes?” treatment, and each provided the expected response and the short-lived revolution in customer service was over.

So I ask the Jury. At what point did efficiency and speed become more important than politeness, or conversation, or common courtesy? When did we decide that we needed to speed things up so much that we became less human?

There’s an old guy who works the conveyor belt before the x-ray machines at Manchester airport, I’ve seen him loads of times and he chats to everyone, asks them where they are going, wishes them a safe trip and all the rest and people look at him like he is an alien, and almost shy away, fearful that he is trying to trap them or catch them out.

“Hey bob, pull these two aside for strip searches, they’re off to Lanzarote and expect to have a good time despite the weather, and we all know what that means (wink)”

He is a stranger in a strange land, one of the old-school. I can’t imagine he is too long for that job, maybe he is nearing retirement and they are waiting for the day when they can replace his happy demeanour  with a highly trained operative of the new-school (at half the wages) who will say “next” with just the right level of intimidation. He asks the right questions, checks for belts, mobile phones and liquids, but gets the job done in a very pleasant way, I appreciate him, I chat to him, and I am saddened by the amazed stares and blank faces he receives from those of us indoctrinated into poor, yet speedy service. It must destroy him, I’m sure.

I worked in the hospitality and retail business for many years, I know how it works (or worked) I understand that there is a place for “Do you want fries with that?”, “Do you need any help with your packing?” “Are you carrying any gels or liquids?” they are important and necessary tools to increase sales, encourage customer loyalty and ensure safety in the air, but they are scripted, written to meet a specific need and provide a specific answer or result, and they should be there. But why does that have to impose on our natural human desire to be friendly and pleasant to strangers, people who are perhaps afraid, stressed or unsure of their surroundings or what they should be doing. Why do we now tag people with badges that say “happy to help” and then enforce a limited script upon them that does anything but provide joy or usefulness. Why do we force them to behave or respond in such a passive pre-conceived, life-less manner.

I know for a fact that the “next” girl (at KLM check-in desk 54 at Manchester terminal 3 at silly o’clock in the morning) only treated me in the manner that she had been trained to do, a professional sullen and careful way. Had I met her at the same time, under different circumstances on a night out in Manchester she may have been the life and soul of the party, we may have laughed as we downed black-Sambuca’s together in a care-free manner. I have a sneaky suspicion that her attendance at that desk at that un-godly hour had interrupted that very scenario. But why not give her the chance to be herself? Why take that away from her with insane requirements and restrictions of prescribed communication. If she was a miserable cow and crap at talking to customers and needed to be instructed what to say to cause the least offence then maybe she isn’t cut out to be in a customer facing environment. I don’t know and I don’t blame her, I blame them. But I also blame us, because we have allowed it to happen, we have accepted the poor levels of customer service masquerading as good customer service, and I can guarantee you have all been asked “next” or “yes please” and accepted it without a thought, it’s not an important point, but it has been the point I have been making.

“Have a nice day”

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