“At This Time”

If you’re one of the many people flying this holiday season, you may notice peculiar phrasing on the part of airline personnel. I am not a member of any million mile club, but I travel enough to use frequent flyer miles, and I’ve certainly noticed the phrasing. It is not coincidental but intentional. I’d like to share some of it with you. At this time, that is.

I have noticed two fundamental changes to normal speech. The first is that all communication between crew and passengers is indirect. Nothing happens directly but through the use of helping verbs. This is why, during announcements, they add “do” to the verb, which has two effects.

We do ask that you stow all carry-on items in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you at this time.

The first has to do with manners. They are truly sorry to have to ask you to do anything, and so “do” has become a sort of apology. I find this very interesting, since it occurs in an age of first-names and fraying civility even in business settings. The other effect is emphasis. “Do” calls attention to the importance of what follows, which is usually “ask.” In the same way, “at this time” is an intensive that adds emphasis as in “on the double.”

The other fundamental change is the development of what I call Service English. Service English functions as the mortar holding the bricks of regular English together. It is composed of rhetorical flourishes such as the waiter exclaiming “Enjoy!” after serving your meal and the customer service agent telling you how much it has been a “pleasure serving you today.” I put both of these on the same order of sincerity as the ubiquitous,”we apologize for any inconvenience.”

In addition to airline personnel, speakers of Service English include restaurant staff, hotel workers, janitors, ticket collectors, bus drivers, and anyone working in a service capacity for their livelihood. In fact, its absence may be the hallmark of established professions like law and medicine. Lawyers and doctors do not generally speak Service English, although that is changing with the appearance of consumer models in those fields.

Perhaps one profession that uses Service English is nursing. This is most obvious when the nurse asks you to do something “for me.” Whatever it is they are asking usually puts you at a disadvantage and makes you vulnerable, as in having to fill a plastic cup with urine or test tubes with blood. The nursing version of Service English contains the additional effect of insistence or demand. If you’ve had any experience with nurses, you know not to mess with them. Dangerous, that.

Of course, the use of Service English is a function of both socio-economic class and sex, but its growing influence over normal speech has caught my attention. Given the close relationship between language and thought, I am not sure what this influence means.

On one hand, it could reflect a willingness to communicate in a civil way, especially with those who are different from us. On the other, it could lead to less transparency and honesty, increasing the distance between thought and language instead of shortening it. That’s what Orwell’s newspeak was supposed to do, and the prospect of Service English leading to that is frightening.

If language does not exactly determine thought, it certainly has the ability to shape, direct, and limit it. In politics, the results could be devastating. We already have to contend with absurdities like “evildoers,” “hate speech,” “homeland security,” and fascistic “anti-fascists.” In addition, history is either being rewritten so that nothing good remains from the past, or it is completely forgotten. Dallas is now a football team, a poor one at that.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to claim that Service English represents a fundamental change to the language and, therefore, American culture. Language is what we use to figure out who and what we are. It is extremely important and its evolution, natural or otherwise, should not be overlooked. I do ask that you give it some consideration at this time.

You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: Old lessons will be repeated until learned.

1 comment

  1. Regulations currently permit liking this post for no more than a single instance, we apologise for any inconvenience.

    Another Orwellian favourite is to phrase something that is likely to be a matter of fact for the next half-century, and phrase it as though it is just this once– as if due to the manager calling out sick that day.

    Bonus points for any phrases (like citing regulations) that boil down to “just following orders.” In accordance with FAA regulations, we do ask that all passengers stick a complimentary peanut up their nose at this time. (Dont blame us, our industry has no lobbying power and is helpless to do anything about this whatsoever.)

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