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Home > Culture and Society

Pet Peeve

30 August 2006

Last week the Times reported, shaking its greying head sadly at a world gone PC-mad, on Newcastle City Council's decision to tell its workers not to call women 'pet'. 'Pet' is one of the more adorable epithets available to the person who can't just finish a sentence with a full stop like anyone else. It is a particularly Geordie wordlet, immortalised of course in 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet'. It's also a diminutive, like 'love' (or the Yorkshire 'luv') or 'sweetie'. It's like a nice pat on the head. (Like Newcastle endearment 'hinny', although that's quite close to 'hiney', so rather more like a pat on the arse.) Who could possibly argue with it? Fascists, that's who. Fascists! Or possibly, eminently reasonable and rational employers who have at least some concept of good customer service, which councils shouldn't consider themselves somehow above.

Customer service is a funny bugger, a vague theoretical code of formal behaviour and attitude, prized by the old-fashioned and dismissed as a bit of a waste of everyone's time by waitresses who chew gum. But customer service, or the lack of it, consistently comes up in police reports as a possible motivator whenever anyone goes foxcrap crazy with a hammer in a shopping centre. If you're trying to get some service from someone and you get the distinct impression that they couldn't give a crap about your needs or concerns, even though that's what they're employed to give a crap about, you're going to get cross or stressed or upset. Especially if you were any of the above to begin with.

One of the surest ways to show you care not a toss, as a provider of customer service, is to address your complainant not as 'Mr/Mrs/Miss Smith' or (the slightly archaic but serviceable) 'Sir/Madam', but as 'mate', or 'love', or 'hen', or 'pet'. In the right context, such tossed-off terms of condescension are worth a thousand 'fuck's. You might as well say what you really mean and say to your customer, 'According to our records the cheque was never transferred, you *knob*.'

Councils, banks, the mob - you expect a certain level of at least graciously feigned respect from them in order to get anywhere with your enquiry or complaint, and it's important that this basic consideration is signalled through careful choice of words. The little cute add-ons and conversational afterthoughts have to be the first to go.

Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a jobsworth prick, than call someone 'petal' and leave no doubt. Your corner shop is a different matter altogether. Worn down by an indifferent world and its scripted call-centre babble, you welcome a bit of down-home chumminess from the bloke who sells you your bread and fags. It makes you feel that bit warm and wanted, and not
like some alienated soul in a heartless world, where no one would piss on you if you set yourself on fire just to get some attention. Same goes for taxis, where functional circumspection leaves you feeling totally short-changed - taxi drivers are obliged to express at least one suspect opinion, and relate one curiously empty celebrity anecdote, per fare, by law.

People don't want the same informal cheeriness from a representative of a
body with responsibility to them as a customer, or especially as a poor sap
of a resident who have no option but to go to them with your problems. You
don't want to be anybody's 'love' when you're trying to ascertain why you've got a CCJ even though you've paid all your council tax up to date. It's like you don't grab yourself a friendly handful of arse in a job interview. Or turn up to work in your pyjamas. Or give an impromptu shoulder massage to the first female Chancellor of Germany at the G8. You just don't.

Newcastle City Council can justify its decision in a second by explaining that it's about establishing the correct boundaries in a formal interaction. If you don't know what you should and should not say to an unhappy person, an irate person, or even just a person you don't know personally, you probably shouldn't be working in a job that requires you to deal with the public.

The sympathetic Times - a broadsheet currently undergoing therapy for its confusing feelings that it should have been born a tabloid - quotes one employee as saying 'It's like they are trying to kill the Geordie language. We're scared to talk to anyone now.' Oh, bollocks. Bollocks, bollocks, offensive, reactionary, hysterical bullshit bollocks. It's understandable that we try to cling to whatever shreds of tribal identity we can these days, but it's become a form of paranoid psychosis, imagining everyone's out to get our heritage. The Welsh Language Board threw its deganau out of the bwth when 'Big Brother' stopped Imogen and Glyn speaking Welsh to each other - not because it was Welsh, but because it amounted to a code which the other housemates couldn't understand, thereby breaking the rules. Still, it might as well have been Clearly Racist, so that's more or less the level of outrage the WLB worked themselves into.

There's some mass delusion that all the UK wants to do, in some sort of extended self-flagellation exercise, is smudge and fudge and blur all of us into one homogenous, magnolia-tinted, Englishy whole. Which explains why everyone with a Radio 4 type voice is wedged into Radio 4, like record-breakers in a phone box, while Huw Edwards, Vernon Kay, Peter Kay, Kirsty Wark and that bloke who does 'Big Brother' run wild and free. The latter represents the ultimate in regional chest-beating by bursting a blood vessel every time he says the word 'eight'.

Trying to get council workers to treat people - specifically, in this instance, women - respectfully and not like pigtailed waifs, has nothing to do with ironing us all out into received-pronounciation-spouting cybermen. It's just an attempt to implement a basic which is so basic it should hardly even need mentioning, and it's got nothing to do with Geordie heritage. They're just as right to suggest 'pet' isn't used as (as the Times also griped) Leeds City Council were to ask switchboard operators not to use 'love'.

If the policy collapses under the stompy feet of strike-threatening workers, the council could always reverse it, and rule that they must call everyone 'pet' at every opportunity. See how well that goes down with Big Ron from the Bull.


They can teach us so much.

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