Why does officialdom talk such guff?

"We are talking a lot and acting a little. We send selfies. That’s it," says Justin Webb

I bring good news. The builders who knocked a hole in the side of our house a few months ago have now joined something called the Considerate Constructors Scheme. Huge notices on the front of their site proclaim it. There’s even a number you can call. I am delighted because, of course, if you come home to find a socking great hole in the side of your house you want it to have been created by considerate builders. It softens the blow, as it were. Makes it less shocking. More considerate.


If they had been in the scheme when the hole was knocked I could have rung my wife and said, “Darling, the considerate builders have been good enough to open up the staircase to the outside world”. It would have been so much more civilised. We would have felt proud to have had the association with them.

Oh, all right, I suppose it would be better to have no hole at all – but isn’t one of the great features of modern life the exchange of actual good behaviour for the promise of it? We are living in an age of declarations of goodness, politeness, punctuality, customer service, commitment to green solutions etc. Companies do it and governments do it: foreign ministers tweet where once they would have sent a gunboat or kept quiet.

Now it is unacceptable to keep quiet – incontinent burbling is the order of the day. The world is full of saccharine messages of support for motherhood and apple pie and opposition to the devil and his doings. I don’t know what the figures are for numbers of statements issued by governments, but in the year that has seen the most displaced people since the Second World War, a paroxysm of violence and intolerance and religious extremism across Africa and the Middle East, we are talking a lot and acting a little. We send selfies. That’s it.

At least the foreign ministers can argue that the alternatives are sometimes even more costly. There is a perfectly reasonable case to be made for restraint. But in the commercial world the same rules do not apply. In the old Soviet Union people used to joke, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”. Now, in the era of social media, when faced with a large organisation we think is misbehaving we pretend to complain and they pretend to take notice. We do not speak: we message. They do not answer: they respond.

Does it matter? You don’t have to be George Orwell to wonder if the misuse of words, the casual appropriation of the language of warmth and humanity by those who might not be particularly interested in either, is a sinister and unwelcome development. These messages, after all, are not neutral. They do not simply pass away without leaving an effect. In fact, much the opposite: there is a passive-aggressive quality to many of them. WE are committed to YOU, they threaten. DOING GOOD for our COMMUNITY they warn. Always thinking about YOU, they leer. 

It used to be said of the Bath and England rugby player Gareth Chilcott that he got his retaliation in first. Now companies all over the country are following his lead. The smart marketing people are suggesting to businesses that they get their responses in before you make your claim. ‘Your call is important to us’ becomes ‘We are dealing with other customers’. The message: what are you, a queue jumper, a phone hacker? Hoppit! And as for that hole in the wall – how can you complain when you know full-well that the builders are considerate. They engage with the community and protect the environment. It says so in big letters on the hoarding at the front of the site. Can you not read? And if you still complain, what does that make you?

The point is that all this guff gets in the way of common humanity. Actually the builders next door are not any more or less unpleasant than any other crowd of people. Even the man on the roof who listens to Smooth FM at maximum volume has a mum who loves him. Some (including the crane driver who smashed up our house) are very nice. And, yes, considerate. But I want to discover this, as we used to discover things about each other in the the olden days. By experience. By deed. Not by slogan. 


Justin Webb presents Today on Radio 4