or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, May 07, 2005


I don't have a big problem with organic changes in the English language: languages are going to evolve over time, and while I may resist some of the changes, I also accept that they're inevitable. "Awful" once meant "awe-inspiring", and now it has only a negative connotation; that's the way it goes. "Awesome" is rapidly changing from "awe-inspiring" to merely "enjoyable" or "really good", and I can't really quibble with that, either. I find it rather charming and vivid, even as the original meaning is lost.

But I have a big problem with the corruption of the language through the designs of corporations.

A few years ago, the fast-food chain Wendy's began referring to its customers as "guests". If they needed to open another cash register to handle an unexpected crowd, someone would say into a microphone, "Eight guests in line." From the beginning this riled me up, because it's a corruption of the sacred name of hospitality. A guest is someone you invite to share something with you. A guest is not someone who is paying you money for goods and services. A guest does not, in fact, pay anything, and it pisses me off to see the word bastardized in this way.

The company for which I work has adopted this horrible usage. It's made the usage worse, almost: Every month for the next five months, we have to earn a pin with one of the letters of the word GUEST in it, and when the program is over, we'll be bearing that label (which, nametag-style, would seem to make us the guests). Each letter is one of the steps in good customer service: as the first step, G stands for "Greet the customer", and as the last, T stands for "Thank the customer". All very good advice, no doubt, but some people will inquire as to the meaning of the letters when we're wearing "GU" or "GUE" on our clothing, and won't at least a few of them be secretly insulted that they're being treated not as people but as an algorithm, a series of steps that must be taken before we can dispose of them?

Our customers, we were told last week, are like guests, and what do we do with guests? We welcome them into our home! But the store is not my home, and when I welcome guests into my real home, I don't expect them to buy things from me. That would make them clients. I don't know which is worse: the mercenary devaluation of a precious word, or dissolution of the line between business life and personal life. I'm bitterly resisting the use of "guest" in this manner. It may be futile, but I'm doing what I can.


Blogger Tony Pius said...

I'm sorry to hear about your company's institution of flair. Voluntary flair is bad enough, but to have it enforced... (You aren't allowed to attach the letters out of order, are you?
"Excuse me, sir, but why does your lapel say 'UG'?"
"Because my training is 40% complete."
"Er... I see.")

Your opening paragraph reminded me of the famous, and probably apocryphal, review of Sir Christoper Wren's rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral. The monarch reigning at the time is said to have called it "awful, artificial, and amusing" -- a rave review, because it meant "awe-inspiring, expressive of artifice, and pleasant to look at."

Monday, May 09, 2005 2:37:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Yeah, flair. There isn't a name for it as such in the store, but it's there, all right, and apparently, given enough time, we're all going to be as bedecked as a Christmas tree. We wear red carpenter-style aprons--surprisingly useful, with three big kangaroo pouches-- and mine has nothing but two little pewter-finished rocket ships right now (for two particularly impressive days of selling), but some people have all manner of little advertising buttons and such. The only useful bit of flair is a blue pin that reads ENGLISH FRANCAIS worn by fully bilingual staff, because this is Canada's only officially bilingual province. (Some of the women have taken to decorating theirs with sprigs of artificial flowers, and that's sort of adorable.)

As for using the "GUEST" pins out of order, I haven't even gotten my "G" yet (and I'm not hostile to the customers or anything, so I don't know why it hasn't been handed to me, not that I particularly want to wear it), but maybe if I end up with all five of them I'll spell out "STUGE", which isn't quite "stooge" but near enough. Or accidentally lose the "E" and spell "GUTS".

Tuesday, May 10, 2005 7:47:00 AM  

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