Whatever doesn’t work

Don’t know if you caught the the news from the Marist Institute in New York last week that Americans find whatever to be the most irritating phrase in the language. It even beat my particular favourite, at the end of the day, and left going forward in the dust.

A company spokesperson declines to comment

A company spokesperson declines to comment

I could provide a rant about how rude it is to use “whatever” in the I don’t care if you deserve an answer, I’m a sulky teenager so I’m not talking sense, but there have already been lots of articles like that and I’m late to this party. So without defending whateverism, I’d point out that people in suits often do the same thing, but they use fancy language and have PR consultants to help them pretend it’s something else.

I’m talking about the unjustified no commenting which translates as “we know something that would be helpful to you if we told you it, we’re just choosing not to tell you it”. There were about 30 of these in the British press alone last week – and that’s just the ones that got reported.

I’m not saying that every question needs an answer. There are plenty of good reasons for not commenting. There might be legal restrictions, or you might need to keep something secret until a particular day for commercial reasons. That’s your business, I’m not your boss. But what really irks me is a no comment either when there’s a clear public interest to be served or a clear business reason to comment – because, for example, it shows respect for angry customers.

Controlling politicians and public servants are in the first category. Listening to Radio 4 – PM, or especially The World at One – it sometimes seems that every other story ends up with Eddie Mair or Martha Kearney saying “we asked the government for comment but they told us that no one was available”. It’s the worst kind of whateverism. What they mean is, “You might have a point, and we don’t want to talk to you for exactly that reason”. It’s openly admitting that self-interest comes before accountability.

The second category is made up of fools who think that talking to the media should only be done when they have something to sell, and that the rest of the time that journalists are useful idiots who can be ignored. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to give comment when people aren’t going to tell you you’re wonderful, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to fess up.

If you are in my lazy fool category, I have two reasons you’re an idiot:

1. People don’t automatically need and respect you any more just because you are director of X for company Y. Readers and viewers are not likely to say that’s all right then, he’s obviously too busy working in my interest, it’s not for the likes of us to question the powers that be. If you want to work in that environment, it’s best to build a time machine and set it for 1952.
2. You’re not my only source. If there’s a real problem that you’re refusing to comment on, you can ignore the conversation – but nowadays we’ll have the the conversation without you, thanks. There are literally millions of sources of news out there, and thanks to blogs, chatrooms and YouTube, saying no comment to one journalist doesn’t kill a story like it did in the good old days. You’ve still got 20 one-star reviews on Amazon whether you decide to comment or not.

It doesn’t help when idiot spokespeople copy politicians, even fictional ones. Every time someone raises an eyebrow and uses the quote from the political drama House of Cards to me, “you might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment,” I just want to punch them in their smug faces.

If more spokespeople just started saying, “yeah, like, whatever” instead of their elaborate excuses not to communicate, the world would be a more honest place. And it would open up new opportunities in corporate communications for feral teenagers, where their demographic is scandalously under-represented.

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