Friday, 20 August 2010

Human shields

English professor Lynne Rosenthal has become a cause celebre after she was thrown out of a New York branch of Starbucks cafe by police for clashing with staff over the wording of her bagel order.

The academic had wanted a plain, toasted multi-grain bagel but said she became infuriated when the server insisted she use the phrase "without butter and cheese".
According to Prof Rosenthal, the exchange proceeded thus: "I yelled, 'I want my multi-grain bagel.'

"The barista said, 'You're not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese.'"

It seems a bafflingly trivial incident for both parties to get exercised over, and the fact that none of Starbucks' staple product was involved in the contentious order makes one wonder what would have happened had Prof Rosenthal had the temerity to ask for a small white coffee.

Via the BBC. I feel a certain sympathy for Prof Rosenthal's frustration. I'm also sick of being asked to buy in to the phony, robotic marketing-speak dreamed up by wretched corporate drones. There's no such thing, in an English coffee shop as a "regular Americano" - it's just a borrowed word intended to re-brand a perfectly respectable small filter coffee as something more exciting and exotic (with a price point to match). When I board a train, I am a passenger, a word that has served perfectly well since the before dawn of the railways - I don't want to be re-branded as a "customer", a weasel word intended to downgrade the railway journey itself to an incidental element in the branded retail experience.

My sympathy is limited, though. Starbucks may be guilty of being a prime purveyor of this sort of weapons-grade bullshit, but getting into a strop with its poorly-paid staff isn't the answer:

She subjects a poor service clerk to a barrage of abuse for asking the question which she or he has been trained, nay drilled, to ask. Anyone who has worked behind a counter will be familiar with the easy air of arrogance with which you can be treated. This Professor made a cruel stand against people who could not fight back, people who at best could continue to ask her perfectly reasonable questions.

Via the Left Outside Blog, clearly not impressed by Prof Rosenthal's outburst. There are two sides to this story, I wasn't there and I don't know whether or not Prof Rosenthal was rude to the person serving her, vice versa or a bit of both. What I do know, is that junior staff in many large organisations have to follow a script. It may be phony, it may waste time, it may enrage the customer, but the person following the script isn't talking like an idiot because they want to. They're doing it because they've been told to do it and will get it in the neck from their boss if they communicate in a non-approved way.

That's why I don't have a go at the bank clerk who asks me whether I'd consider getting a loan, or changing to a new mortgage provider, even though I've clearly only popped in to drop off a cheque, am visibly in a hurry and do not, I hope, look like the kind of half-wit who, if I was actually in a bank and needed a loan, would be incapable of asking about one without being prompted. Because that bank clerk is just another poor sod stuck in a tedious job, who is required to pester potential customers at every opportunity and who would be disciplined for having the temerity to realise that the customer clearly didn't have the time or inclination to discuss additional services and could, therefore, be spared the time-wasting sales talk.

So I bite my tongue. And the faceless corporate zombies responsible for making the poor dogsbodies at the bottom of their organisations talk like exasperating cretins are able to continue tormenting the public, safe in the knowledge that it's the dogsbodies who will be their human shields, taking any flak that results from following their idiotic script.