A Pair of Sophistries

21 March 2012

I'm engaged in a fight with a corporation[1] in which I note its agents practice two, somewhat intertangled behaviors which are common to large or corporate enterprises, but which should be opposed whenever encountered.

The first of these is for the agent of the enterprise to confuse his or her rôle. For example: I gave agents of this corporation the same information repeatedly in the course of one phone call. In a later phone call, I told another agent that I'd given that information to you repeatedly, to which the agent replied, as if I were delusional, that she had never spoken with me before. This might be read as deliberate or incompetent misunderstanding of the word you (which of course must serve as a plural as well as a singular[2]), but it fits another pattern, in which the agent speaks as representative when it suits his or her immediate purpose, but instead as just an individual when that immediate purpose changes, and in which the agent doesn't announce changes in the entity for whom he or she speaks. I immediately told the agent in this case that, since she was representing the corporation in the conversation, you are the corporation, and that since I'd repeatedly given the information to the corporation, I had repeatedly given it to you.

The second behavior is to confuse endogenous policy with necessity, to represent the association as unable to do something simply because they have made a deliberate habit of not doing it. Actually, one sees people in general, in or out of a corporate frame-work, doing attempting this confusion. But the misrepresentation is more likely to be effective in the context of a formal, multi-personal institution, and the word policy is more likely to be invoked as if it represents something endogenous and fixed. (Does one often hear a neighbor insist that keeping his dog out of one's garden would be against policy?) And the misrepresentation is even more effective when the agent of the institution confuses the issue of whether he or she is speaking for the corporation or for his- or herself. Speaking for myself, I don't let an individual or association pretend that its chosen policy is not a choice, and I don't let the agents of an association off the hook of being its representatives when they try to claim that something cannot be done because it is against policy.

[1] Sprint Nextel Corporation.

[2] In standard English. And I'm not about to adopt y'all or youse or even you guys to humor a corporate agent.

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4 Responses to A Pair of Sophistries

  • David Alton Dodd says:

    Your conversation would have been better understood in Spanish and many other languages that incorporate a plural "you". I love my home country of America, but I must admit very often that the language there doth sucketh in comparison to some others.

    • Daniel says:

      Actually, what happened in English is that the second-person plural came also to be used as a deferential and then polite singular, and the earlier singular þou/thou to indicate familiarity, perhaps even rudely so. The earlier singular slipt into disuse, and came to seem archaïc to mainstream speakers and writers.

      It would indeed often be nice to have the common second-person singular and second-person plural pronoun be distinct. (Hence the dialectical y'all and youse.) It would often also be nice to have distinct first-person plurals for cases in which the audience were included and cases in which it were not.

      But, where one is interacting with someone who is to represent the institution but wants surreptitiously to distance him- or herself from it when convenient, while a distinction of pronouns would do some good, I don't know that it would do a lot. If you had only its original force, these folk would simply be sliding from we to I. In the most recent event, I didn't mount a response in terms of a discussion of grammar; I just drove home the point that the rôle of the agent in the conversation was to speak for the institution.

      • David Alton Dodd says:

        I understand. But I found it interesting from the point of that once I came down here and learned Spanish, I actually found it to be quite useful myself in many applications I would have never dreamed. And, growing up in the U.S., like yourself I always found the reference "y'all" odd in my native tongue. Having been in the company representative's position myself, I always asked, "With whom did you speak?" It just made more sense to give the customer the benefit of the doubt in any case.

        • Daniel says:

          It's nice to have concise precision readily available, which is what the usted/ustedes distinction offers. (There's actually an awful lot of such precision available elsewhere in English, but which precision only works as such if the audience is more familiar with the language than most native speakers are.)

          (I took Spanish in HS, but had virtually no use for it until, decades later, I moved to San Diego, by which time I'd long forgot the vast majority of what I'd known.)

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