Does “That’s a bit annoying” mean I’m slightly tee’d off?

Or does it mean “I’m bloody furious”?

We Brits rarely say what we mean.

So how do you help folk who didn’t grow up in the UK, absorbing our nuances from birth, tell the difference between a customer who’s mildly annoyed and one who’s seriously cheesed off.

It’s one of the things I’m researching for my work with Vodafone’s call centres in India. And if you’re interested in why we behave like this, check out Kate Fox’s hilarious Watching the English.

What’s passive aggressive politeness?

As customers we’re sometimes too polite to complain directly so we resort to what one client called passive aggressive politeness.

But people in companies often do the same thing, perhaps without realising it.

I’ve worked with big companies watched over by powerful regulators for many years.

If they get it wrong they’re fined large sums of money by the FCA, Ofgem or whoever is their industry’s guardian of morals and ethics.

The problem for us – and for their customers – is that because of this, some now cover their backs with an impenetrable verbal armour.

Playing it safe in customer comms

There are three traps companies fall into when writing to customers:

1. Quoting their terms and conditions without explaining them, usually leaving customers in the dark and pissed off.

2. Covering every possible point on a subject all in one letter, just in case it crops up in future. This ‘kitchen sink’ approach baffles and bores people.

3. Using passive aggressive politeness – a pompous, outmoded tone that’s deeply offensive, even though it doesn’t actually say anything rude.

Killing them with kindness

Here’s letter that illustrates this passive aggressive politeness. It’s not a direct quotation, but an amalgamation of phrases we’ve come across in some of the customer service and complaints departments we’ve worked with.

How would you feel receiving this?

Dear Mrs Bloggs

Subject to our further enquiry into the points raised in your letter of 10 October 2017, following the complaint received by us subsequent to our original communications, it is with regret that I inform you that our initial assessment was indeed correct.

Should you wish to submit further evidence to support your case, you are of course at liberty to do so, however, we cannot envisage any circumstances in which a change in our conclusion is likely to be affected.

We value all our customers’ business and would be delighted to assist you in any way possible. Please do not hesitate to call should you have any further queries.

Yours sincerely

Herbert Smartipants

You see what we mean by passive aggressive politeness? (If I got a letter like that, I’d want to punch the pompous little git on the nose.)

It’s no surprise to hear that the regulators are getting complaints about the tone of voice in letters like this. And are pushing companies to update their tone – and their attitude – to something more clear and helpful.

It’s all about empathy

True politeness is about being helpful. And to be really helpful, it always helps to picture someone we know and like and write with them in mind.

In our workshops, the people who are best at improving their writing are the ones who say, ‘How would I write that to my mum?’ or sister or boyfriend, whoever’s appropriate.

So what’s that letter really saying? Something along these lines:

Dear Mrs Bloggs

We’ve looked closely into the points you raised in your letter dated 10 October, and we still believe we’ve made the right decision.

I know that isn’t the answer you were hoping to hear – please do call me on 0208 123 4567 if you’d like me to explain the details, or if I can help you with anything else.

Yours sincerely

Herbert Firmbutfair

Even though Mrs Bloggs still won’t be delighted, she’s less likely to get straight on the bus to the ombudsman’s office.

What do you think?

Are we right?

Sometimes we get people in our workshops who that say their mums would rather get the first letter than the second one.

Are we so accustomed to being treated passive aggressively by big organisations that we hardly notice?

Let me know what you think.