You probably know by now that I am not, by any measure, a nationalist. On my better days, I don’t mind being British and I can even take a little pride in British accomplishments, though I’d never – and I mean never – get a flag tattooed on my leg. If I were ever in a position (unlikely as it is) to need duel nationality, I would have no problem losing a bit of my Britishness. I’m really not defined by my country of birth, though, oddly, I definitely feel more northern and working class, though not in the way that, say, the BBC tends to understand those terms.
I say this to preface the following because I want to underscore that I’m as relaxed a guy as you could find when it comes to dealing with people from other countries. I don’t have a xenophobic bone in my body. I find foreignness attractive, some of my best friends have been from outside the UK, and I free a real pleasure whenever I hear an accent that isn’t from these shores. It makes me feel connected to a much bigger world.
Having just spent an hour on the phone to Microsoft’s technical support, however, I do begin to wonder how much of the recent upsurge in English nationalism arose from the frustrations of people trying to troubleshoot technology with non-native speakers of English. Since the 1980s, we’ve lived in a culture in the UK where customers have been taught that they’re always right. That doesn’t sit well in a situation where one dialect is trying to understand another.
It’s a real problem, I think, knowing the people I know and understanding how they react to call centres. It breeds a low-level hostility to people who aren’t English. I say “English” rather than “British” because even the Scottish accent can cause the same kinds of bitterness. The same can also be true of English regional accents. Myself, I never have a problem with native UK accents. Even when the BBC subtitle some particularly strong accent, I can’t think of an instance when I’ve needed the subtitles to understand what’s being said.
The same can’t be said of more exotic dialects. Today, I spoke to Microsoft’s support desk. The guy was extremely nice, patient, and helpful, but I really struggled to understand almost anything he said. It’s a miracle I got through the call, guessing what he was asking based on the odd word here and there. At one point, I was even struggling to explain that Merseyside isn’t a city and, in fact, I don’t live in a city…
None of this was his fault, I should add, and that’s always important to remember. It’s the fault of companies who provide this kind of substandard service. They aren’t simply doing their customers a grave disservice. Nor are they just harming themselves (I really have it with Microsoft at this point… Yet another tablet PC lasting just a few months). They are generating the kind of hostility that emerges elsewhere in life. It provokes the red-faced zealot who screams “why can’t you speak bloody English” because they are incapable of understanding that their norms aren’t world norms.
People often speculate about the big things in life that affect life but repeatedly I’m reminded that it’s actually the small details that we often overlook that provide the most torque in moments of profound change. The colour of the passport meant more to people that the real hard business of the UK’s trading relationship with the EU. The change from cheap lightbulbs to expensive LED lightbulbs (a little too early, probably) perhaps, for a while, affected the way people thought about climate change. Having to take five minutes spelling the name of a town containing 15 characters might alter how some people view the bigger world.
It certainly affects how I think about Microsoft.