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  • Good grammar leads to violence at Starbucks?

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    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 any more, 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.  

dw@think-ink.net Aug 17, 2010 2:56 am
How unfortunate that the scripted conformity of language you describe is now extended to public school teachers, at least in the k-12 years. Your description of how baristas and clerks are treated is very much how teachers are treated--except now we are to be fired if the customer does not produce the required response.
annalaura_87@live.it Aug 31, 2010 5:03 am
In case you were wondering, in Italian we say "il barista" (plural "i baristi") to refer to a male barista, and "la barista" (plural "le bariste") if she is female. Etymology: "bar" (English word!) plus suffix -ista which indicates a profession.
wes228@nyu.edu Sep 4, 2010 1:58 pm
I don't get the grammar argument by the professor. The question "Do you want butter or cream cheese?" is, in logic, a question that the professor must either assign a value of TRUE or FALSE (or "yes" or "no"). The professor wants neither butter nor cream cheese, the answer is FALSE (NO). The professor wants butter the answer is TRUE (YES). The professor wants cream cheese the answer is TRUE (YES). The professor wants butter and cream cheese the answer is TRUE (YES). Now if the professor wanted to get cute, she could have simply answered "Yes" to the question without specifying, because the barista technically was not asking her what specific topping she wanted.
uwannabeneda@hotmail.co.uk Sep 9, 2010 4:54 am
I don't think it's as clear cut as you have made it seem (wes228). The Barista simply asked (quite impolitely, if you ask me): "Do you want butter or cheese?" insinuating that one or the other had to be chosen, technically removing the option of having the bagel without butter or cheese. All this possibly in an effort to up-sell and increase the cost per transaction. Clever trick but unfortunately not clever enough for some. That's the impression I got anyway.
ypsiroselee@gmail.com Dec 1, 2010 5:59 pm
While I can understand the frustration of the professor at having to answer to business speak, demeaning someone who is trying to assist you is an ill-mannered method of expressing it. Perhaps she was unaware that it is very rude to correct someone's speech in public; her ignorance notwithstanding, she crossed a very bright line of public etiquette when she verbalized obscenities at the clerk. She needs to get over herself. Additionally...English is a truly bastardized language, if one examines its history with any care at all. I'm sure our professor has read the Old English "Beowulf", the Middle English "Canterbury Tales", and a number if not all of Shakespeare's works...shall I go on with examples? It would be impossible not to notice not only the changes in diction over time, but also the nearly malfeasant abuse of contemporary grammar to be found in each example. That our language may be changing (evolving? devolving?) due to the influence of modern society is to be expected, for fair or for worse. Resistance to this does NOT, however, excuse demeaning or otherwise humiliating another human being. EVER.

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