Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Gather round, my readers, and I’ll tell you a little story of corporate missteps and sleazy language usage.

Last summer, in a kingdom far, far away, I was sitting at home with my parents, brainstorming about how to make our family’s business a bit more manageable. We use a cell phone as the main number for the business, which is also a personal line for one of the members of my family. We came upon the idea of trying to find a cellphone that allowed one to have multiple lines, so we could turn off the business phone line at closing, yet still be able to get in touch with the person who answers it on a personal line. This would be a convenient solution for everybody involved, so I set off to try and get information.

At this point, I called our cellphone providers, Cingular, to try and get some info on this possibility. After a few minutes on hold, I was connected to a representative (“Bonnie”). After exchanging the vast quantity of personal information needed to confirm that I’m me, our conversation went something like this:

Me: I’d like to get some information on using two phone lines with a single phone, so we can have a business and personal number ring through to the same phone, ideally being able to turn the business line off at a certain point. Do you have any phones or plans that offer that as a feature?
Bonnie: Sure, hold on just a second and I’ll ask somebody
— 5 minutes of holding —
Bonnie: Alright, so you’d like to have a second line added to an existing phone?
Me: Yeah, if it’s possible
Bonnie: Which line?
— I give her the phone number —
Bonnie: Alright, let me do some research, can I place you on hold?
Me: Sure
— 20 minutes of hold —
Bonnie: Alright, I’ve gone ahead and deactivated the number [our main business number], your new number is 30…
Me: Wait, what?!
Bonnie: You said you wanted to add a new line to the phone at [the number], so I deactivated the old one
Me: No, no! I wanted to add another line in addition to the first. Can you reverse the change?
Bonnie: Oh. Well, you should’ve said so. I’ll put in a request to change the number back, it’ll be three to five business days…

At this point, the owner of the phone in question walks in to ask why her phone just cut out mid-call, and I’m in shock at the fact that a request for information has resulted in the deactivation of our business line.

I ask for a manager, and find out that yes, it does take them three to five days to reactivate a cell phone that they themselves turned off in around 20 minutes. I ask for a manager’s manager, because, well, we kinda need a business phone, and all they can offer is “We’re sorry to hear that, we’ll listen to the tapes to see if a miscommunication occurred”.

So, I give up. I get a case number, hang up, and glare angrily at their logo for a few minutes hoping for some sort of voodoo reactivation acceleration. Doesn’t work.

I called the next day to see if they had done anything. Still nothing. I called the day after. Nothing. The day after that. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Finally, I called a consumer affairs sort of person at Shingular and explained the whole situation on the fourth day of being without a business phone number. I spent my obligatory 10 minutes on hold, and then it happened. The sleaziest, most rank corporate doublespeak I’ve ever heard. He got back on the line and said “Well, we’ve reviewed the tape. It sounds like our agent did take too much initiative with your request.”

I think I actually started laughing. “Too much initiative”. I hope, for the sake of the man who said it, that that’s a canned line that they train people to use in these situations, because if he came up with that unprompted, I fear for his soul.

Framing: BS by any other name

This particular phrasing is a wonderful example of what prominent linguist George Lakoff calls “framing”. Framing, simply put, is the creative use of wording to change a person’s perception of a given concept, statement, or question. One uses words with a good connotation (associated feeling) to describe what people might consider to be a bad thing, in hopes that they’ll listen to the words, and not the nastiness that lies beneath.

The most common example is the Republican Party’s talking point of “Tax Relief”. They do their best to use this phrase as often as possible, because whenever they do, it helps advance their cause in the mind of the listener, however subtly, due to the wording. In general, we are “relieved” of an unnecessary burden, and “relief” is always a good thing. So, by talking about tax relief, taxes are lumped in with worry, ailments, pain, and discomfort. Although somebody might not want to cut taxes irresponsibly, who wouldn’t want to give people relief?

Our nameless Cingular executive has used framing beautifully here with “to take too much initiative”. Rather than apologizing or explaining that they’ve made an error, he frames Bonnie’s blatant mistake as a good thing. Everybody likes to hear about people “taking the initiative”, setting out to get things done, not just talking. We put it on resumés and job applications, and in our corporate culture, it’s quite a virtue. How on earth could I object to an employee going above and beyond the call of duty and taking too much initiative with my request?

Of course, this same strategy of framing bad things in the guise of excess good could apply elsewhere. We could claim that a man crushed in heavy machinery “recieved an overly passionate hug from the compactor”. We could argue that really, an aerial bombardment is a “free fireworks display for opposing troops at excessively low altitude”.

The problem, of course, is that if people see through your framing (especially when it’s this shameless), you end up seeming like a real sleazeball. For him to use a line like this is bad, but to use it to avoid apologizing is just heinous.

Unfortunately for the Cingular rep, I saw through it. Moments after the “too much initiative” line, I asked to be transferred to his manager. Luckily, she was nice, competent, and willing to help. Five days after the ordeal began, we finally got the line back, and they even threw in a free month for our trouble (this is the only reason I’m not using the company’s real name for google to find).

The morals of this story

This story has two morals:

Cingular/AT&T customers, make sure and specify that you’d like the rep to ask you explicitly before they make any changes to your account. It might not be easy to undo anything.

Service Reps, please give us a little credit, and avoid using framing to try and cover your own mistakes. We’ll see through it, and your well-crafted lines will seem like a wealth of excessively fresh, free, waste-based organic fertilizer from America’s finest Cattle. See, it’s insulting when we use it with you. How do you think we feel?

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