Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pretentiousness at 30,000 Feet

Coming back from the Much Ado About Books convention in Jacksonville, Florida on Sunday, I managed to upgrade to first class on my United flight. The steward (yes, I know it's fashionable to call them flight attendants, but I don't see what was wrong with steward and prefer two syllables to four, other things being equal) greeted each first class passenger and inquired, "And will you be joining us for lunch today?"

I couldn't help myself. When he got to me, I glanced left and right, then inquired back, "Is there somewhere else I could go?"

Is United training its people to talk this way? (Obviously, I need to fly first class more often to collect more data.) Help me understand: is the idea that by having the steward ask, "Will you be joining us for lunch today," instead of simply, "Will you be having lunch," you'll suddenly forget that you're strapped into a flying tin can breathing recycled air and be fooled into thinking you're enjoying the eight course gustation menu at Le Cirque, instead?

Look, I'm all for politeness and nuance and I believe in the power of language, but you have to use words properly to achieve the desired effect. You can't join people for lunch when you're already sitting down and have nowhere else to go without a parachute. The phrase just doesn't translate at 30,000 feet. And for the steward to suggest otherwise feels like the cheap gimmick it is.

United, if you want people to think they're having a fine dining experience in first class, you're probably going to just have to provide one. It would be more expensive than aping the customs of terrestrial restaurants, but it would have a better chance of success.

I mean, what's next, lunch reservations?


Anonymous said...

if you get the opportunity, check out Southwest Airlines. Their attendants have added stand up comedy to the in-flight experience.

David Terrenoire said...

This has nothing to do with lunch or language, but it I think the story fits if you turn it sideways and stow it in the overhead baggage compartment.

When I was a young enlisted man, we had to fly in our dress uniform in order to get a discount. My first time back in the States in nearly two years, they put me in coach, next to a nicely dressed businessman in his late 20's or early 30's. He looked at my uniform, curled his lip and asked the stewardess (they were stews back then, and attractive, every one) if he could change his seat. She asked why and he said something about sharing space with a murderer.

She smiled and said, "That will be no problem, sir." She told me to follow her and she set me down in first class, my first time up there beyond those magic curtains. As she tucked me in she whispered, "My brother's with the 101st." Then she told her first-class sister to take good care of me.

I was well and suitably drunk when my parents picked me up at the airport.

Anonymous said...


I get that "will you be joining us" jazz on United all the time. Makes me wonder if they actually are trained to talk that way. I also get a lot of "and how are we today?", which bugs me. It makes me want to look over my shoulder.

LDF, I'm curious about your comment about Southwest's security...are you saying that open seating causes a security problem? (I fly them a lot, and while they're cheap, the open seating drives me nuts).

Barry Eisler said...

Mark asked: "I don't suppose 'Do you really want to eat this swill?' would work, would it?"

I don't know... I'd probably be too stunned to eat anything after plainspoken honesty like that.

The thing is, I don't mind airplane food at all. It's bullshit that makes me bugeyed.

David, it's too bad they couldn't have just ejected the asshole sitting next to you and solved his problem that way.

Whoa, did I just say that? It slipped out somehow.

Jim, agreed, there does seem to be a signicant moral hazard problem in any industry that becomes "too big too fail," a phrase that should probably be followed by, "No matter how deserving."

Rae, if you've heard it too, it firms up my suspicion that United is actually training its employees to talk this way (damn, I would love to see that memo!). Still, I think I should try to fly first class a little more, just to make sure we have sufficient data. Anything for science...

Anonymous said...

Barry ... point kinda taken, but you need to chill just a little bit. (Maybe you need to get laid more often? I guess you'd gone a whole weekend without ... I hope, anyway.) As you say - and as you demonstrate once a year in your books - language is very powerful. For the flight attendant to say, "Are you joining us for lunch today?" seems to me to be a sophisticated and goodwill-laden attempt on the part of the airline (or the individual) to take the sting out of what is - for all concerned - a fairly miserable experience. Precisely because you have no choice (as you say, absent a parachute) the phrase achieves a kind of wry nod toward the coercive reality. I think my heart would have been lightened, not my brain enraged.

In your penultimate para you say, "It would be more expensive than aping the customs ..." which is making a verb out of the noun "ape" ... ("aping" here clearly being the present continuous, not a gerund) ... which process you decried in an earlier post. The point being that sometimes that process works, and sometimes it doesn't. I agree with you that "architected" won't work, but plenty of other instances have, to the vast enrichment of our language.

I didn't share your feelings about "visibly moved" and "visibly shaken," either. By aping (sic) the manner of, say, a courtroom reporter, one who uses either phrase is effectively saying, "Had you been, like I was, in the same room as the guy, but without an opportunity for direct contact with him, you would have noticed, as I did, by visual clues alone, that the matter at hand was so serious to him that he was unable to conceal his distress, which he might have preferred to do." I think that kind of shorthand compression is also very enriching.

Yours in mutual fascination with words, Lee

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say Barry, but that Lee
has you beat hands down on the word fascination. Love it!

I. Michael Koontz said...

Airlines are trying to do two reaonably admirable things: 1) Not go bankrupt 2) Stand out from the other airlines.

#1 they don't seem to be very good at, but #2 at least they're working on, with their little cutesy airline phrases (Buh-bye! Buh bye! Will you be joining us...? We know you have a lot of choices when you fly....) that stick in your head long after the flight is over.

It must work, because the catch-phrase and United both appeared in the post.

Personally, I think it's United's way of being cutesy, wry, and informal, and I'll take that any day over that speech that begins, "We have a very full aircraft today so........."

Anonymous said...

This sort of non-language is not restricted to the airlines. My wife and I ate dinner last night at Applebees. The waitress (flight attendant on the ground) every time she came to our table asked my wife and I how we “guys” were doing. As in “how are you guys today? “Is everything okay guys?” “Have a great day guys”. This drives both of us crazy, as it is very obvious that only one of us is a guy.

Another common overused phrase now is “no problem”. “Excuse me, could I get a clean spoon?” “Sure, no problem.” “Thank you, dinner was very good”. “Your welcome, no problem”. No problem, I would think not, that’s your job! It’s not like I am asking you for something out of the ordinary, like your first-born.

Barry, you should do a blog on the service (oxymoron) industry.

Barry Eisler said...

Lee, I admire your good-hearted interpretation of what the steward was trying to do, and I agree he should get some points for good intentions. Hoever, we ought to be judged not only by our intentions, but also by our results.

When the doctor warns me, "This might hurt a little," I understand it would be more accurate for him to say, "If we could bottle the agony you are about to experience, it would be enough to power Manhattan for a month." But at least he's barking up the right tree. The notion of "joining" a captive audience of which I'm already part, on the other hand, is dissonant, and that' why I find it annoying (but mostly in an amused way -- verbal bullshit will engage me, not enrage me).

Totally agree that whether a verbed noun works in its new guise is a case-by-case call. My problem with "architecting" wasn't the verbing as such; it was the pretentiousness of using the verbed noun to replace "design." Ape, however, is a standard, transitive verb: "to imitate the behavior or manner of someone or something, especially in an absurd or unthinking way; e.g. 'new architecture can respect the old without aping its style.'" See also

Fair points on "visibly shaken" etc. Still, at best I think the adverb is redundant; at worst, someone lost an opportunity to describe something in a fresh, persuasive way. I guess my main problem with this one, as for so many others, is that it's overused, probably because it's so easy that it becomes a substitute for real thought and expression.

I didn't know you shared my fascination (some would call it an obsession) with language, although I probably should have suspected from the care with which you craft the Reacher books. We're going to have fun at Thrillerfest. But for now, I think I better go get laid...

BTW, saw that The Hard Way was #7 on Amazon yesterday, with five stars from eight customers. Way to go! I'm taking a copy on the tour this summer and looking forward to it.


Anonymous said...

Barry, your blog must be rubbing off on me. On my way to an appointment today, I passed an office of the Department of Corrections. Wait, I thought, isn't that just a nice way of saying "Department of Punishment?"

Department of Punishment sounds so 1984ish, however, that it left me feeling chilled. I lightened my mood by imagining what people in the Department of Corrections must do for a living.

Do they accept manuscripts for proofreading, for example, and correct all your typos? Or perhaps they have adopted a kinder, gentler way of dealing with criminals:

"Sir, I don't mean to embarrass you, but you've got a nasty bloodstain on that shirt you're wearing. And perhaps you haven't noticed the rather large butcher knife you're carrying with bits of entrail still clinging to it? If you'd like to hand it to me slowly, I'll just stash it in this little evidence room over here for safekeeping.

Easy does it. There you go. My, what a large knife. Thank you, sir! Don't worry, we'll take a picture of you holding a sign with the ticket claim number written across the bottom so we don't forget the knife is yours. OK?

Anything else we can do to make your booking experience more pleasant, don't hesitate to let us know. Particularly if it involves information about where you stashed the body. We hope you'll enjoy your contact with the Department of Corrections. We're always striving for a more pleasant society. Thanks for visiting!"

Barry Eisler said...

Peregrine, now you know what it's like to be trapped in my head...

You raise a good point: what's the proper basis for the name of an institution? The Defense Dept used to be the War Dept, for example. The new name is certainly more palatable... but is it correct? You could argue that the Dept of Defense is now aptly named because its purpose is defense. It's former name focused more on the means by which it acomplished its purpose.

OTOH, while many govt agencies are concerned with protecting or defending the US, war is what really defines the DOD. There's something to be said for this kind of specificity, and DOD doesn't have it. "Defense? What do you mean?" "Well, you know, it's the department in charge of war." "Oh... well, why didn't you just say so?"

JH, there was some discussion on an earlier thread about "you guys" as an imperfect northern attempt at "y'all" or "youse." The language needs a dedicated gender-neutral plural, doesn't it...

I. Michael, points, like Lee's, well taken. I might have missed the intended irony in the question. But again, intentions, while important, are rarely dispostive...

Anonymous said...

Barry, exactly. "To ape" is a standard transitive verb now, because it works. "To architect", however, will never be, because it doesn't work. But I would defend the use of, say, "I was the architect of that scheme ... " (where the scheme clearly ain't a building) rather than, "I designed that scheme" or "I was the author of that scheme" in cases where the more grandiose verb accurately conveys the complexity of the task ... liaison, coordination, the bringing together of disparate disciplines, etc, etc. Similarly, I don't have a problem with "That will impact our bottom line" if the description is of a complex knock-on process not readily obvious at first glance.

Anyway, I'm off on tour now, so you'll be glad to know my on-line time is about to be severely limited ...

Barry Eisler said...

Lee -- although it's difficult for me to admit it, there's a lot of subjectivity at work here, so I respect your analysis even when I don't necessarily agree with your conclusions. Also, these subjects are inherently difficult to discuss properly on the Internet, where there's no booze being shared.

Good luck on the tour and see you at Tfest!

Anonymous said...

Peregrine, now you know what it's like to be trapped in my head...

'Tis the blessing and the curse of being a writer, Barry. We might not all agree about language and how to use it, but we are all fascinated by words and love to play with them in various ways.

E.g. my first conscious thought this morning was an understanding of why it grates on me when people say they're going to drink a few beers, rather than saying they're going to drink beer (or a few bottles of beer). It's because the plural of deer is deer, and I'm more likely to think/talk about deer than beer. The lack of parallel between the two words jumps out at me. Doubt it bothers most people, let alone enters their mind first thing in the morning.

Writers. We're all nuts. ;-)

Anonymous said...

LOL! You're sunk, LD--you came up with that list awfully quick. I think you'd better start penning that novel now.

Of course, the challenge will be to use all four of those words in the course of telling your story. And they have to integrate well into the larger context. No fair dropping them in random dialogue just to cover the bases.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the progress, LD. You're in good hands if Barry has given you pointers.

This is the first novel I'll complete (and I've promised myself I'll complete it). I'm only about 20k into mine. I'm also the world's slowest writer, although I tend to revise as I go, so it's a polished 20k. I'm still trying to figure out things like pacing, however, so just because the sentences are polished doesn't mean it's any good--lol!

Anonymous said...

LD, long hard process is right! But it is satisfying to hold a stack of paper in your hands and see how far you've come, isn't it? I've tried to quit writing a couple of times, and always return to it. I'm miserable if I don't.

JA Konrath said...

I don't have anything at all to add to this, other than to say that I call those little overhead air nozzles "germ cannons."

I believe this should become part of the air travel lexicon.