Hoorah for the free

Certain things exist more as clearly desirable goals than as, well, things. People talk about them because they really sound like they are great, good, honorable or whatever — and hopefully some of that great goodness will rub off just by the talking even though deep down we all know they probably aren’t real.

Customer Service is one such. Our number one goal, you hear said. Customer Service. We’ve all experienced how at the individual level — that is, when it really counts — customer service usually falls short. Each individual customer, separated from the herd of customers, is less likely to receive what’s commonly understood as great Customer Service. But in the general or group sense, the group of all people who give us their money, customers are clearly very important and servicing them in whatever way is required to keep getting their money is a likely priority. “We want you to be able to give our Customer Service top marks!” they may say, and that’s a little closer to the truth.

Customer Service is something that you end up giving to them, to be honest.

Human Resources. We also hear big organizations say that their staff are their most important asset, and Human Resources is there to look after their people. But in case employees thought that meant they were in any sense cherished by their employer, the very term ‘Resources’ should offer a clue. Employees are generally a resource of temporary and relative value. Most important but just for the time being and insofar as we don’t want them to leave at the moment. But in reality they’re more like paper (Printing Resources), desks and chairs (Furnishing Resources), or those rapidly depreciating computers (Office Resources).

Human Resources. Among all company resources, probably the most difficult to manage but not by much. And don’t tell the shareholders, or your customers, that your employees are more important than they are.

Here’s a good one, favored by politicians: The American People. If ever there was a feel-good term that signals the imminent arrival of a lie it’s ‘The American People’. What The American People want is whatever will cast the speaker in the most flattering light, or whatever the speaker’s opponent doesn’t want. And vice-versa. Listen to politicians for long enough and you would think The American People wanted and didn’t want, agreed and disagreed with just about everything.

Maybe the archetype for these sorts of hoorah words and phrases, where what’s said is almost diametrically opposed to what’s intended, is the word ‘Free’.

Unless ‘Free’ is used in conjunction with ‘fragrance’ or when talking about Paul Rodgers’ band, it’s likely to signal a cost of some sort. Free, they say, meaning free of something but probably costing you a lot of something else. Free advice, free workshop, free e-book. Buy one get one free. Free: just pay shipping and handling. There’s pain free, as in hair transplants or vasectomies; why even mention pain then? Free download (well of course; the cost comes immediately after). Free edition (comes with commercials).

Free is possibly the most regularly abused term, and has been used to get a foot in the door or a hand on your wallet since before the fathers founded.

Free range – ask any chicken about that one.

And by the way — the guy who came up with the phrase ‘land of the free’ was an anti-abolitionist.

(And a lawyer.)