"OVER-POLITENESS IS RUINING THE COUNTRY. PLEASE, BE SO KIND, DISCUSS."
Article for the Daily Telegraph by EDWINA CURRIE
I love it! The Queen takes aim at the Eurosceptics and in three words (“division is dangerous”) makes her views clear. Just as she did with the
Scottish referendum, when she murmured to a bystander that voters “should think very carefully.”
The Queen, whose manners are impeccable, knows how to say things bluntly. After Clare Short’s mobile phone went off during a Privy Council meeting,
HM just smiled and said, “Never mind, I expect it’s from somebody really important.”
Meanwhile, nearly 80% of business managers think being over-polite is costing their firm money. A quarter haven’t confronted someone returning late
from lunch; 20% have failed to challenge a dodgy expenses claim. They won’t make a fuss about a late payment, one of the banes of British business
life. They don’t challenge wrong-doing, even though it’s their job, for fear of appearing rude.
That’s never been my problem. I’m embroiled right now in an argument with our cash-strapped local council (who happen to be Conservative) over
why, with £81m of debt, they are hanging on to so many assets, including two pubs, a hotel, two restaurants, a shopping centre plus 13 shops, a golf
course and such like. Over the horizon are galloping two racing certainties: further cuts in councils’ block grant, and rising interest rates. Should
I just be polite and shut up? Don’t think so.
Those trembling bosses may worry about upsetting their staff, but over-politeness can drive the customers crazy. On Monday’s BBC2 The Bank: A Matter of Life and Debt, a fly-on-the-wall look at the NatWest branch in Huddersfield, the smiley woman manager was trying desperately
to improve their customer satisfaction ratings. She reminded me strongly of Ruth Madoc in Hi-de-Hi. “Oh please, get up,” would have
been perfect for both.
Yet her staff seemed incapable of saying “No” face-to-face to a customer with a hazy credit record who was demanding more money. Doing it by
text message was cowardly and infuriating, and predictably got an “unsatisfactory” rating from him. Then, as the manager gave up-beat
interviews to the cameras, long queues snaked away from the cashiers behind her. That, I wanted to yell at the screen, is not customer service! Your
customers are fidgeting in fury and need to get back to work, and you’re faffing about ignoring them.
Over-politeness on the phone makes me groan. My husband will ring a bank, or building society, and is instructed by a automated voice to trawl through
various options. Then he’ll sit fuming while Vivaldi’s Four Seasons crackles tinnily. Twenty minutes later, at last! a human voice.
But it goes through the whole over-polite rigmarole.... “Hello, this is HSBC, you’re through to Mandy from Customer Service, good afternoon,
sorry to keep you waiting, we are experiencing heavy call volume...” He’s usually apoplectic by then, and may even have forgotten why he
called. How about answering the phone promptly, and saying, “Yes?”
When I represented miners in South Derbyshire, straight talk was appreciated. “You won’t always like what I have to tell you,” I’d
say, “but I won’t lie to you.” The unvarnished truth is our birthright, but we don’t hear it often enough in politics. That’s
partly because for years the public have preferred to hear a rose-tinted fantasy, though I suspect we’ve been learning the hard way in the UK. Liam
Byrne’s blunt “There is no money” note helped David Cameron win the election; enough voters have lost patience with equivocation and
Compare Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. She drove through reforms whether popular or not; her 1986 note to me is now hung on the guest loo wall, saying
“Controversy and politics go together – what matters is never to let the commentators divert us form the important work we set
Mr Blair, however, was politely emollient and convincing, even as he led the country into an unnecessary war. Whose reputation has stood the test of time?