Friday, 01 September 2017

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 1 September

Thomas Blaikie looks into how much chat is okay while on the phone to a call centre, and having to avoid mobile phone users

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas
I’m wondering how much banter is required on a technical support call. Recently I had to phone a certain well-known computer company quite a few times to resolve various problems. It’s true, there were long pauses when they asked me to restart my machine or whatever, but it was a bit irritating to have to fill the time with jolly chat about the weather, how much ironing you’ve got to do, what’s the best way to get to the Isle of Wight etc. On the other hand, you feel mean cutting them off when they’re trying to be friendly.
Rachel Downing, Exeter

Dear Rachel
I suppose this could apply in any call centre-type of talk where banter might break out. I’m always a little relieved when whomever I’m talking to turns out to be human, and not just a machine reading a script. As when you say, ‘Can you please pass on my feedback to a person who just possibly could do something about it?’ And they say, ‘I understand that you’re frustrated.’ ‘Yes, but I’d like to feel that you’re at least going to try to do something about it. Can you pass on my feedback to someone who can do something about it?’ ‘It’s very annoying, I do understand.’ Whereupon, if you’re me, you go nuts.

I find that people taking calls for computer companies etc usually judge well the level of ‘chat’ that is appropriate. Unlike on the train where announcers always seem to be auditioning for a stand-up gig at the Comedy Club. I’m delighted to hear that they’re in an actual place, rather than just suspended in the telephone ether. It’s so reassuring if they say, for example, ‘It’s really raining in Dublin today.’

If your computer isn’t working or your item hasn’t arrived from a certain well-known Knightsbridge store, a little soothing banter might be just what you need. Or it might be annoying, but could you allow yourself to be distracted? If you’re really ‘not in the mood’, the person on the other end will pick that up and desist from jollity. But, really, it’s nicer to be nice. So why not?

Banter isn’t ‘talking about nothing’ as some people persist in thinking. It’s a somewhat deflecting form of discourse, designed precisely for talking to strangers in situations where there is no obligation to be sociable (as at a party, for example) but one wishes to convey friendliness without being intrusive and to exchange limited information about oneself. So you might say, ‘I’ve got to get my shoes resoled’ or ‘I’m thinking of doing something different with avocados for lunch.’ What’s more, to be just a little mercenary about it, if you join in and reach out, are just a little friendly, that poor person in the call centre might just feel that bit more fired up to help you.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT... Mobile phones

I’d hoped to work in various bits of manners news from around the world – such as that the mayor of Viareggio in Italy got banned from a restaurant in his own town for wearing cargo shorts – but mobile phones dominate. From 25 October, you can be fined up to $99 for crossing the street in Honolulu while looking at your phone. Objectors wonder if this can be enforced but there have been a lot of collisions in that city from people wandering in the road while distracted by their phone. But phone-users are a hazard just about anywhere these days. I seem to have more and more near- misses. Also those with the white plugs in their ears – listening to music. Curiously, it has been discovered at the same time that people don’t like talking to Siri in front of others, according to BBC breakfast. Do you know about Siri? It’s a facility on an iPhone that is supposed to speak if spoken to. But people feel silly barking at Siri in front of others. They tend to hide behind trees. If only they felt the same about using their phone for other purposes.

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