Opinion: I’m Not Your Mate, Sir

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One of the dubious joys of growing older is finding that you have an increasing lack of patience with things with may once have not irritated you, but now seem designed to send you into a state of seething resentment and quiet fury. Grown men on skateboards, youths with their jeans hanging down, people climbing on internet meme bandwagons, pushy chuggers, dreadful British comedy shows that seem to think actually being funny is a sell out… all these things start to feel as though they are part of a giant conspiracy designed to make life as irritating as possible.

The other week, I was doing my usual shopping excursions, and was greeted by the pimply youth working behind the counter of Wilkos with a cheery “alright mate?” as I deposited my goods for purchase. Now, I’m sure that this has happened many times before, but for some reason, this jocular familiarity immediately irked me. The situation became rapidly worse in the next shop, where in the course of a single one-minute transaction, I was called “matey”, “bud” and “pal”.

I found myself becoming quietly furious at this chummy informality. “WE ARE NOT FRIENDS!”, I wanted to yell, though my British reserve and the knowledge that causing a scene in a shop that I regularly visit would be potentially awkward kept me in check. Instead, I left and stewed quietly.

Since then, I’ve experienced this sort of thing a number of times. It’s always from male cashiers – I guess “mate” isn’t in use as much with women, even younger ones. And it is continually irritating. It feels impolite – not just overly familiar, but lacking in respect. What is wrong, I find myself thinking, with calling a customer sir or madam? 

“But some people don’t like to be called sir”, Mrs Reprobate reminded me as I complained about this to her later that evening. And that’s true. It certainly seems to make a few people feel uncomfortable – possibly because the British have that uncanny knack of calling you ‘sir’ while making it sound like ‘arsehole’. Better to be openly disrespected, you might think, that to have some supercilious twat being sneeringly respectful.

And I’m aware that some will make a point of objecting to being called ‘sir’ because of perceived class distinctions – “don’t call me sir, I’m no better than you” is the refrain heard from man-of-the-people politicians, even as they demand first class treatment that suggests that deep inside, they actually do think of themselves as superior to the hoi polloi.

Yet calling someone sir or madam is not a case of being a forelock tugging peasant who knows his place. It’s simply good manners in a situation where one person is ‘servant’ and the other ‘master’. The person calling you ‘sir’ in one shop might, rightly, demand that you call him sir if he frequents a business that you work at. It’s simple decency. And in any case, it’s surely better to risk upsetting the odd champagne socialist with a chip on his shoulder than to have your staff showing a wider lack of both respect and professionalism? It also seems to me that the staff in shops that do show more respect to customers also seem to have more respect for themselves, and that it surely a good thing.

It might seem silly to demand a polite respectfulness in your more downmarket stores, but good manners cost nothing and if Aldi and Lidl want to hold on to the former Waitrose customers that they picked up over the last few years once the recession is over, maybe they need to make more of an effort. Treat your customers with a degree of respect and those customers will feel better about visiting your store. Maybe they’ll even feel a little bit better about themselves. You might improve their sense of well-being, simply by being polite.

I know that in the grand scheme of things, this is not especially important. It’s probably an old-fashioned idea, similar to having tele-sales and bank staff calling you by your first name instead of Mister (and yes, thinking about it, that seems irritating too – a phoney attempt to seem as if they are your friend, rather than the unhelpful, fleecing bastard that they so often in fact are). But it seems to be a sign of a general sloppiness that afflicts the retail experience. Surly and unhelpful staff, cashiers holding conversations with each other as they serve customers, useless call centre operatives signing you up to deals that don’t actually exist… does this make the whole experience better for anyone, customer or employee? I doubt it.

Shopping in Britain can be a grisly enough experience as it is – let’s not make it more horrible.

DAVID FLINT

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