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The art of saying nothing

December 24, 2007

Hello again,

I have been reflecting on how the UK seems to have some wordsmiths trained specifically in the art of using language to say nothing at all. Schools take note, this...

... could be a new course for you to offer.

One of my favourite examples was to be seen on the side of the A35 coast road. Perhaps it’s still there. A large roadside display board had been erected on which were emblazoned the words: sign not in use.

Politicians of course have all received special training in this art. Commenting on the recent loss of computer-held NHS patient records, Health Minister, Dawn Primarolo said: "What it is really important to stress is how important patient security and confidentiality is and how each of these trusts is moving to deal with this. And given we have hundreds and hundreds of trusts I think that patients should be confident that their information is being held appropriately."
Exactly what is that supposed to tell us, Minister? If patient records are so secure and if we patients should be so confident, then how come thousands of records have just been lost?

All big corporations have a department for responding to complaints by using a lot of words to say nothing. My favourite journalist, Simon Hoggart, enjoys exposing such ploys. Last week he quoted reader David Heckels from Ipswich, who “received a magnificently incomprehensible reply from its customer relations department, seeking to explain why you can never get a cheap ticket to go where you want to go:”

The Value ticket is an incentive product and therefore we use yield management techniques to assign the tickets to services that we wish to increase passenger numbers upon [sic] ... we identify low yield services and apply Virgin Value tickets to encourage customers to travel on these services.

So now you know. But then I guess anybody who has once experienced travelling on a Virgin train would be wise enough never to wish to repeat the experience anyway.

Banks are also masters of this art. I recently complained to my bank about the poor quality and complete ineptitude of their call-centre staff. The reply I had was: “we receive many complaints about the call-centres and we take them very seriously.” I then asked what was to be done to improve them. The bank person looked surprised at my temerity: “ We keep a record of all complaints so that we know what our customers think.” I continued to press for an answer to my question. It came: “Well obviously there’s not much more we can do because the problem lies with the call-centres, but I assure you we take your complaints seriously.” Well, obviously. And equally obviously I can take my account elsewhere.

And part of this art of saying nothing is to master all the current clichés: going forward at the end of the day there is light at the end of tunnel on a level playing field!
Merry Christmas to one and all.

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