Dealing with the public, U.K. style

A recent article in the Guardian listed the reasons people call local government. The information was compiled by the Local Government Association, and what journalist could resist? Other papers ran versions of the story as well. People asked:

What was the name of the James Bond baddie who liked cats? (That was for a crossword puzzle.)

What size pan does Mary Berry’s strawberry tart call for? (At least they didn’t ask what kind of fruit it calls for.)

How much water do you need to cook super noodles? (A lot. What are super noodles?)

What are the rules for mouse racing? (First you catch your mouse…)

What should you do if you eat an out-of-date pork pie? (Write your will. It’ll keep you busy until you come to terms with the fact that you’ll live.)

Would you take my cat? (No, for my cat is a jealous cat. My other cat probably is as well, but he’s young and can’t imagine other cats moving in on his territory.)

swanage 078

Cliffs near Swannage, Dorset. That woman soaking in the sublime scenery? She’s looking at her phone.

I don’t know if those are particularly British questions—except of course for the Mary Berry one. She keeps cropping up here.  The emergency phone system fielded a call from someone who said Mary Berry had kidnapped her. The consensus among people who left comments here was that we should all be so lucky. We’d get a nice cup of tea and some homemade cake.

When you deal with the public, you hear and see pretty much everything. My dealings have been with the American public, but basically weird calls are weird calls. I used to work for a writers organization, and it ran a series of contests. Every time the rules confused someone and they called to ask for an explanation, the organization responded by making the rules more specific. And longer. Which confused more people. Which led to more calls. My favorite went like this. “I see it says to staple the submission in the upper left-hand corner. Whose left is that?”

As an organization, we never did seem to catch onto the connection between increased length and increased calls. So who, I ask you, should I be making fun of here?

34 thoughts on “Dealing with the public, U.K. style

  1. I think that it is kind of beautifully wonderful or maybe wonderfully beautiful that the more complete that you make the instructions, the more confused that people get. Maybe Ikea, and the cave artists, got something right.
    She is taking a picture of the limestone cliffs to instagram to her friends. The person snapping the picture of her (it could be you) is doing the same thing. In the 21st century, we call this “living in the moment.”

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Recently the governor of Minnesota proposed a 50 ft buffer strip between farm fields and streams. It seemed like a sensible approach to improve water quality but at a local farm-expo, a farmer asked an interesting question – “50 feet from where?”.

    “Would that be from the center of the stream, or the edge of the stream, or the top of the bank?” No one really knew. Then the questions got harder.

    “Do I still pay taxes on the land you just took out of production?”

    “Now that my land is worth $40,000 less, would you talk to my banker? He’s kinda upset.”

    There is a reason why governments hold an endless series of mind-numbing meetings every time it considers a new regulation. In the end, the state and farmers agreed on a compromise, the state would actually enforce the existing 16 ft set back that is currently on the books.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, what exactly are super noodles? I decided to google that and it looks like a brand of instant noodles. I’ve handled calls from the public time and time again at work in the tertiary sector, fielding incoming calls about course applications. Some of the questions are downright hilarious, and often it’s a result of people not reading forms or instructions that are easily available. Some people just expect things to be handed to them on a silver platter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Clever you for thinking of googling super noodles. That didn’t occur to me. I guess I just they were big, big noodles.

      When I worked as an editor, I kept myself sane by keeping a list of the funniest bad sentences (or whole paragraphs) that came my way. Ooh, that might make a good post. Anyway, it sounds like people on the phones are doing the same with crazy callers.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve given a lot of presentations at technical events, and sometimes it’s hard to answer the question without making myself or the person asking look stupid. I figure the audience has already formed their opinion, but I don’t want to tip the balance toward me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The problem is, that sometime ago Local Government in Great Britain adopted the ‘idea’ that ‘The customer is always right’. Prior to this adoption, the theory was that the general public (as opposed to ‘customer’) were basically idiots who should be ignored. This of course leads said public to feel that they now a right, if not duty to contact their Local Government with ridiculous requests which must be answered within a specified time scale. OH and the best one I heard was a lady that called the Parking Office and asked if they could get someone to put a dimmer switch on the street light outside her house, because it was keeping her cat awake at night!.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, on behalf of her cat I’d have to say–. Wait a minute. Why do I get to speak on behalf of her cat? Forget it. I can’t even speak on behalf of my own cats. They won’t put up with it.

      Never mind. The problem with what you’ve explained is that we seem to have a choice of (a) the government ignores its citizens because they’re dimwits and irrelevant to the task of governing or (b) the government listens to its citizens and flushes out everyone in the locality who actually is a dimwit, and then has to be taken them seriously. Which is better? Probably (b), but surely whoever’s answering the phone should get to say, “Sorry, we can’t deal with that. You’ll have to write Mary Berry.” Who’s not answering her mail, probably, for exactly that reason–she doesn’t want people offering her cats or asking for dimmer switches.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love your anecdote about rules and making them longer when they confuse people. I think there has to be a point when the rule-makers have to decide that some people are just too stupid to enter the contest. Dumbing things down too far just leads to questions about which left corner the staple goes in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Another literary organization–I forget which one–went in the other direction. Its contest rules consisted of a maximum length and, if I remember right, nothing else except a couple of sentences along the lines of, “That’s right. Nothing else.” I’m guessing they ran into less trouble policing their contests.


    • They are indeed. I’ve had brief moments where I was convinced that something along the lines of not finding the salt shaker was an emergency. Fortunately, they don’t last long enough for me to involve 911. Or 999 here. But yes, I’m sure 911 gets some doozies. The thing is, I’ve never seen them published. A friend’s mother worked for what was then, I think, a pre-911 system in Minneapolis. Sadly, I didn’t have the sense to ask her about the calls they got.


  7. I suggest that if the noodles were all that super they would cook themselves. I read recently that this plethora of instructions and health & safety warnings on everything is putting us at risk of losing our natural perception of danger and instincts to figure stuff out for ourselves… by the sounds of it, we’re already there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point about them cooking themselves. Someone needs to get to work on that.

      On unnecessary instructions–admittedly, not about safety, but still: A couple of days ago I saw a bottle whose label said, “Upend before pouring.” I spend several long seconds looking for a way to pour without upending. I didn’t find one.


  8. Pingback: Dealing with the public, U.K. style: part 2 | Notes from the U.K.

  9. Pingback: Bats of America | Notes from the U.K.

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