It started with a BlackBerry Passport and ended with the Vodafone manager threatening to punch my lights out

It seemed that in order to find out whether I wanted to buy the phone, I had to buy it

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The Independent Online

So how loud does your voice have to be before someone thinks you’re shouting? How sharp your reprimand before it will be described as threatening? And how close do you have to be to someone before you can be accused of being in his face? These and similar questions will be addressed below. But I can tell you the answer to all of them now. And it’s the same in every case. Not very.

Anyway, I was curious about this mobile phone I’d been reading about. The BlackBerry Passport. A giant of a phone that would be ideal, I thought, for a man with fading vision, stubby fingers and no interest in selfies. It’s possible you can take a selfie with a BlackBerry Passport but it’s so heavy you won’t be able to hold it up to your face long enough to strike a becoming pose. I should say it “looks” so heavy because so far I haven’t been able to lay hold of one. Indeed, it was in the hope of being able to do just that that I breezed, all innocence, into a Vodafone shop in the vicinity of Covent Garden. I won’t be any more specific than that. It’s not my intention to encourage copycat visits.

Two assistants were talking to each other at the counter. They didn’t look up or ask if they could help me. I found a BlackBerry Passport the size of War and Peace glued to a display table and enquired if they had one I could pick up. One of them shook his head. I wondered, in that case, how I could discover how heavy it was and what it felt like in my hand. The other shrugged and said I couldn’t. How then, I wondered, did people discover if the phone was suitable to their needs. “They buy it,” the first assistant said.

I thought I ought to be sure I’d heard what I’d heard. “So you’re telling me,” I said, “that in order to know whether you want to buy the phone you have to buy it?” “Yeah,” one of them said. “But we haven’t got any anyway,” the other added.

There’s a tide in the affairs of men, and all that. Swept on by that tide I approached the desk and expressed surprise at their way of doing business. I was a Vodafone customer and felt I had a right to expect a certain level of politeness, not to say helpfulness, from Vodafone staff. Were they here to sell phones or weren’t they?

It was at this point that a third person, wearing some sort of anorak and sitting at a little table near the counter, told me not to shout. I told him I hadn’t at any point raised my voice. I had expressed exasperation, which was not the same thing. “Don’t shout at my staff,” he repeated, though the only person shouting was him.

Since he had in this way declared himself to be a manager – a sub-manager as it turned out – but hadn’t stood to address me, I sat to address him. “If you’d heard the tone in which your staff answered my enquiry,” I said – letting the idea of professional derogation hang in the air between us – “you would understand why I spoke to them as I did. They were rude, I let them know I didn’t like it. I didn’t shout.”

“Get out of my face,” he said, getting into mine.

What happened next, how this led to that, how the two original men took turns to say, “If you know what’s good for you you’ll get out of this shop”, how the third man threatened to call the police, how I told him to call who he liked, how after no policeman arrived I decided life was too short for this and rose to go – still ignorant as to the configuration of the Blackberry Passport – all this I will not trouble you with. But as a parting shot, because I felt the event needed a finale, I called the sub‑manager a clown. Whether he’d trained to be a clown and failed, or whether his wife had run off with a clown, I had no way of ascertaining, but if he’d been in my face before, he was out the other end of it now. He reared up from the chair in which he’d all along been sitting. “Come back at six o’clock when I’m not wearing my uniform and say that,” he said.

So there you have it: in the space of 10 minutes I’d gone from making a modest enquiry about a phone to being threatened with having my lights punched out. And the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker tells us that violence in civil society has declined.

I wrote to Vodafone’s chief executive, thinking he’d like to know. I was contacted with a number to ring, but it was just customer services – the place you go to complain about your bill. They offered me £30 for my inconvenience. Just think, reader: if I’d gone back to the store at six o’clock and been knocked senseless by the sub‑manager, they might have offered me £50.

Whether the person who made the offer believed me when I told him money wasn’t the issue, and whether I should have believed him when he told me the case was being investigated, I don’t know. But I am not living in suspense.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this, the more obvious, regarding the part faceless multinational companies play in raising social tension, I leave readers to draw for themselves. But we have reached a pretty pass when the surly, the disobliging and the downright rude believe they have a human right never to be admonished. Of course, no one should be abused, but a rebuke is not abuse. First we couldn’t slap a child, then we couldn’t tell him off. Now we cannot tell off anybody.

Politeness is a two-way street. We’ll be sorry when the public, tired of being treated with contempt and held in queues when it complains, decides to pull the whole lot down.