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Accents Aren't Always Acceptable, Pet

Posted: 27/07/11 01:00

Selfridges, the upmarket department store chain, have banned their employees in their two Manchester branches from using expressions such as 'hiya', 'see ya' and 'cheers' when addressing customers over fears that they are too colloquial and sounding like Coronation Street extras. Staff at the shops have, understandably, reacted against this new policy. One assistant said to a local newspaper, "It's all a bit bizarre considering that we are a Manchester store and many of our shoppers are from the Manchester area".

I can see their point, but I am probably on the side of their bosses who clearly want to portray a more cosmopolitan image. Selfridges is a nationwide brand and whilst a majority of the customers in the Manchester branches will be local, there will be a significant percentage not from Greater Manchester having travelled there from farther afield. (The same will be true of the other Selfridges shops in the UK.)

Local expressions, aided by regional accents, can hinder understanding. It is good manners to make sure that the person to whom you are talking comprehends the first time around. We should not have to repeat ourselves.

Those who have heard me speak will tell you that I 'speak posh'. (I would say I don't speak 'posh', just the Queen's English, but that is a debate for another time.) My voice, setting modesty aside, can be understood wherever. I was in China earlier this year on a speaking tour of the south of the country and had I spoken with the slight Bristolian twang I used to have as a child (being from Bristol), then the Chinese people with whom I was speaking may not have understood fully what I was saying. In a job where communication is essential (and in giving good customer service, communication is definitely essential) you have to make sure your audience is put first.

I do not use any expressions particular to one area within the UK, or the wider world. That said, I have some friends who despite being white and middle class persist in talking in the language of 'the streets' which they hear rappers use on the radio. It's bizarre to hear as you don't expect it. I shall state now that I have no problem with the language of said rappers - if that's what they want to use and they are happy with me and many other people not having a clue what 'mate, was out on the razzle last night with the crew and picked up some casual lampoontang, had a bang tidy night' means then good for them.

I have lived in Manchester for three years now and even though I am getting much more used to the dialect and less than subtle accent, there are times when I have to ask people to repeat things. I shouldn't have to, really. I shouldn't have to strain my ears when listening to people. I love listening to accents, and - contrary to popular belief, I do not think everyone should talk like wot I do - but they must be understandable. It is only when accents become unintelligible that I have the problem.

What Selfridges maybe should have told their staff to use was their social intelligence. If they start interacting with a customer whom they can clearly tell is from the local area then let loose and use as many Mancunion sentences that their hearts' desire. But if they start interacting with a customer that does not talk in the same way then hold back and use a more formal register of language.

I advise many businessmen to enter a meeting dressed in a suit and tie, and then if they realise that they are dressed a tad too formally for the event then they can easily slip off the tie later on in the day. Whereas if they go into a meeting with sleeves rolled up, two buttons unfastened, and their tie around their head, it becomes quite difficult to suddenly become more formal later in the day. Err on the side of caution, and turn it down a notch or two later. It saves face.

I do wonder though how the shop assistants in the Trafford and Exchange Square branches who complained about being 'censored' would feel if a Londoner, speaking in broad Cockney rhyming slang, went in and asked for a pair of trousers and directions to the gents' loo. Would they understand the customer? Probably not.

And if the staff really don't like the new Selfridges policy, they can always go and work elsewhere...

 

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