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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can I help you?

Well, if you’re asking, clearly not!

Of all the phrases that have come to mean anything but, “Can I help you?” must surely be on top of the list. Sometimes the words are uttered with a sinister, sibilant hiss. On occasion they come accompanied by a withering stare and a snide raise of the eyebrow. And sometimes you get the whole package.

But at all times, it is transparently clear that the speaker doesn’t really believe that he can help you at all. In fact, truth be spoken, he doesn’t have the slightest inclination to be of any help whatsoever. All he wants is to put you in your place, show you that you don’t really belong, to make it clear, in other words, that you are irredeemably beyond any help.

I was reminded of this rather forcibly recently, as I accompanied a house-hunting friend on her rounds. As we trudged wearily up the stairs of yet another apartment building in the last stages of construction, our way was barred by a rather angry young man with a militant glint in his eye.

“Can I help you?” he asked my friend in a quelling tone.

“Um yes,” she said uncertainly, “We wanted to see the apartment…”

“And you are?” he cut her off.

My friend stammered out her name, adding (in an apologetic way that left me seething), “I had spoken to Manjit…”

“Manjit? And who is Manjit?” the young man asked sternly, brows raised ever higher.

By then even my otherwise mild-mannered friend had had enough. “I think he’s your father-in-law,” she said tartly, taking an educated guess, given the young man’s sense of entitlement.

Needless to say, a very embarrassed son-in-law gave us the grand tour after that, gibbering on about every fitting and fixture. But all the while, I kept thinking of the words that had sparked it all off.

“Can I help you?”

Was there ever a phrase that was so misleading? In all my many years, I have yet to hear it used by anyone who actually means it.

Of course, where you hear it most often is at tony stores selling uber-expensive designer goods. Here, the sales assistants – or retail managers as they are somewhat loftily titled – have perfected their technique over time and many hundreds of hapless shoppers.

You only have to look just a tad out of place. You know how it goes: a less than impressive handbag; clothes that scream high street rather than high fashion; or simply the wrong accent when you speak English. And before you have even begun browsing through the wares comes the question: “Can I help you?”

The query itself is polite enough. But the body language is anything but. The supercilious smirk tells you that the question is not intended seriously. And the condescending up-and-down that accompanies it is enough to send even the bravest shopper straight to the exit.

If you are thick-skinned enough to still linger in the shop with an airy, “Oh no thanks, I’m just looking around”, the unstated derision will deteriorate into plain and simple rudeness. If you ask to be shown something, you will be made to wait while the sales attendants look after the needs of the more likely customers. If you evince a desire to buy something you will be told its price in sneering tones – the assumption being that you couldn’t possibly afford it.

The other place where this phrase is employed with chilling effect is your average unfriendly neighbourhood five-star hotel. Sometimes this can have rather comic consequences. Insiders still chortle with delight when they recall the plight of an industrialist’s wife who arrived back at her hotel after some serious late-night carousing.

After many hours of steady drinking she was a little bit worse for wear – as was the slinky black dress she was wearing. So, the moment she pressed the elevator button, hotel security was on her with a “Can I help you ma’am?”

Well, she wasn’t drunk enough not to notice that she had been mortally insulted (and probably mistaken for a call girl for good measure) and all hell broke loose. The night manager was summoned, the security men summarily dismissed and the industrialist promptly took his business elsewhere.

Tricky thing, this “Can I help you?” business.

And yet, hotel staff continue to throw the phrase around with impunity whenever they come across a guest who they feel doesn’t quite belong. Sometimes it’s an officious doorman trying to bar entry to someone who doesn’t look well-heeled enough. Sometimes it is a restaurant manager leery about seating guests who either don’t fit the bill – or can’t possibly foot it, in his estimation. And then, of course, there are all those bumptious security men sidling up to you in the lobby with specious offers of help.

So what is a good response to this non-sequitor of a question?

There are several ways you could go. You could feign a complete lack of understanding and respond with a polite, “And how would you like to help me?” You could get all aggressive with a belligerent, “And what makes you think I need any help?” Or you could turn all snooty yourself and retaliate with an icy, “You couldn’t possibly begin to try”.

Or you could take them at their word and ask for directions to the nearest loo. I think you’ll find that it’s the most effective way ever to puncture their ballooning self-importance.

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