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Good grammar leads to violence at Starbucks?

By Dennis Baron

Apparently an English professor was ejected from a Starbucks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for – she claims – not deploying Starbucks’ mandatory corporate-speak. The story immediately lit up the internet, turning her into an instant celebrity. Just as Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who couldn’t take it anymore, became the heroic employee who finally bucked the system when he cursed out nasty passengers over the intercom and deployed the emergency slide to make his escape, Lynne Rosenthal was the customer who cared so much about good English that she finally stood up to the coffee giant and got run off the premises by New York’s finest for her troubles. Well, at least that’s what she says happened.

According to the New York Post, Rosenthal, who teaches at Mercy College and has an English Ph.D. from Columbia, ordered a multigrain bagel at Starbucks but “became enraged when the barista at the franchise” asked, “Do you want butter or cheese?” She continued, “I refused to say ‘without butter or cheese.’ When you go to Burger King, you don’t have to list the six things you don’t want. Linguistically, it’s stupid, and I’m a stickler for correct English.” When she refused to answer, she claims that she was told, “You’re not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese!” And then the cops came.

Stickler for good English she may be, but management countered that the customer then made a scene and hurled obscenities at the barista, and according to the Post, police who were called to the scene insist that no one was ejected from the coffee shop.

I too am a professor of English, and I too hate the corporate speak of “tall, grande, venti” that has invaded our discourse. But highly-paid consultants, not minimum-wage coffee slingers, created those terms (you won’t find a grande or a venti in Italian coffee bars). Consultants also told “Starbuck’s” to omit the apostrophe from its corporate name and to call its workers baristas, not coffee-jerks.

My son was a barista (should that be baristo?) at Borders (also no apostrophe, though McDonald’s keeps the symbol, mostly) one summer, and many of my students work in restaurants, bars, and chain retail stores. The language that employees of the big chains use on the job is carefully scripted and choreographed by market researchers, who insist that employees speak certain words and phrases, while others are forbidden, because they think that’s what moves “product.” Scripts even tell workers how and where and when to move and what expression to paste on their faces. Employees who go off-script and use their own words risk demerits, or worse, if they’re caught by managers, grouchy customers, or the ubiquitous secret shoppers who ride the franchise circuit looking for infractions.

I’m no fan of this corporate scripting. Calling customers “guests” and employees “associates” doesn’t mean I can treat Target like a friend’s living room or that the clerks who work there are anything but low-level employees who associate with one another, not with corporate vice presidents. I don’t think this kind of language-enforcement increases sales or makes our dining experience any more pleasant.

Nonetheless, my sympathy is with the employee in this case, not the customer. Yes, “the customer is always right” is long gone from most businesses, but on the other hand, baristas, servers, and retail clerks, not to mention flight attendants, not only get told by management exactly what to do and say in every situation, but they also have to put up with a lot from the few overly-demanding customers who probably don’t even remember what the minimum wage is and often neglect a tip or, if it’s not a tipping business, a friendly word, if only the polite though scripted “Have a nice day.”

Surely everyone overreacted during this incident at Starbucks, triggered by corporate-speech or just two people having a very bad day. But for me the story highlights the many constraints placed on our language by forces that may seem beyond our control. We are asked to believe that corporate success depends on uniformly-consistent products sold in cloned franchises by employees whose language is stamped from templates sent out by headquarters. But the uniformity is an illusion. Robots make cars that are all alike, but some of those cars can’t seem to stop very well, while others have no problem at all. Starbucks can make a bad cup of coffee from time to time, Target can sell a defective t-shirt, and fast-food burgers, whose manufacture and cooking is carefully controlled, can pass along e. coli.

We want dependable products, yes, but when there’s too much uniformity we all crave the unique, the variant, the imperfection that makes life interesting. When it comes to language, people, employees and customers alike, can only stand so much sameness, so many templates. We definitely do not want fries with that, because, the way language works, we all have to go off-script from time to time, or go mad.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can read his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site,  The Web of Language.

Recent Comments

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  3. The Word Guy

    Far be it from me to mention that on a flight to Cleveland this week we were told that “The use of cell phones and pagers ARE now permitted” – oops, I just did – the scripting of marketing is, indeed, irritating. Part of this comes from that tired (and should be retired) notion of “suggestive selling,” whereby servers are required to provide customers with choices, whether the customer wants them or not. Such phrases as “Would we like some of our delicious apple pie for dessert?” always has me thinking “You eat what you like but I certainly don’t want any.” Starbucks – who I love and patronize – have introduced us to the “tall,” “grande,” and “venti” as opposed to “small,” “big” and “Whoah, is that a cup or a bucket?” Even the “frappucino” is a trade name, not, as many people think, a generic. In fact, Micky D’s have to try hard to get their customers NOT to ask for a “McDonald’s frappucino” – it’s a “frappe” (which IS generic).

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  6. Judi

    What is so difficult about saying “Neither, thank you”? Proper English is one thing, but I believe civility and common courtesy are the real issue here. Sheesh.

  7. swiss

    Hear, Hear, Judi! Proper English and decency all rolled into one, it is possible.

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