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What’s wrong with ‘people’?Jon 1:37 pm, Jun 12th 2012
How should a local council refer to its customers? Citizens? Residents? Clients? Users of its services? It’s the kind of question we like here at Quietroom Towers. We could see why a borough council might not be comfortable with the word ‘customers’. Maybe it’s too reminiscent of retail and consumerism – too transactional. But what is a better alternative? It’s not as straightforward as it may seem.
I have always disliked the word ‘consumer’ and the way that it’s used liberally in marketing discourse and in the media. It’s a reductive and one-dimensional word that sums human beings up as units that consume. It’s dehumanising language and, at its worst becomes part of phrases like ‘target consumer’.
Somewhat simplistically, I asked what’s wrong with ‘people’? It’s a good word. It encompasses a fairly wide demographic. It’s a word that we could use a little more in the world of work. If we don’t, we become merely ‘consumers’ or ‘human resources’ – functional units, rather than flesh and blood. At the worst end of this spectrum, we are ‘collateral’ as in the abominable phrase ‘collateral damage’. Using the word ‘people’ helps us to resist management culture and capitalism’s drive to turn every vestige of human experience into a mathematical sum.
The reason that the word ‘people’ doesn’t quite work for a council is that it’s just too generic. It makes no distinction between those in the council and those outside and it doesn’t denote a relationship. The challenge is to find a word that alludes to care and service without demeaning either party or turning the relationship into a transaction. The most satisfactory solution we could find was ‘clients’, which somehow feels a little less ‘retail’ than customers and incorporates a stronger sense of respect and equality.
Sometimes, language – even one as rich as the English language – has its limits. But thinking about this challenge reminded us of something important. What we call things matters, but what we call people? That really matters.