Is your brand copy inadvertently rude?

All language works hard.

Not just in the obvious stuff.

It also works hard to quietly navigate imbalances in social power balances.

In England, with its long history of social demarcation and anxiety around service, there are terribly twisted ways to ask for things:

 “Do you think you would be able to pass the salt?”

One of our linguistics advisors is Hungarian and when she returns home for family dinners and inadvertently translates this English habit of asking for something into her native language, everyone laughs.

Of course they’re able to lift the two inch high salt pot and pass it all the way down the table to her.

pass the salt

So, yes, we use language to navigate social power balances.

But our choice of language also reveals what we really think of those social power relationships.

Someone you know can surprise you when they say something that’s inadvertently racist.

And brand language can be inadvertently rude.

I travel a lot on GWR trains, and on each journey, as I settle into my seat, they remind me that there are safety instructions located “in the vestibule.”

At that moment, I always think of the 500 people on the train, and I’m not sure how many of them know what a vestibule is.

Putting aside the safety issue of telling people that something very important is located in a place they wouldn’t be able to point to, there’s something revealing in this language:

GWR don’t care about their customers.

If they did, they wouldn’t use a word with a meaning that most people aren’t comfortably sure of, and which hasn’t been used in conversation for about 20 years.

When they exploit the imbalance of social power (we have the microphone, you have to listen) they tell us a lot about their attitude.

Of course, if you’d used the loos, or looked on the floor, you’d know what they thought of us already.

But people understand that operational issues are difficult to fix, and they attribute them to management decisions.

What they don’t understand is why the human interaction, which they associate with the people they see day-to-day on the train, and is easily changeable, is cared so little about.

Language works hard. But a brand’s verbal identity is one of the quickest pieces of the brand and customer experience you can fix.

If you’d like to share thoughts, or talk more about brands and copywriting, please email Chris in his bureau.