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Good Grammar Leads to Violence at Starbucks?

Did you hear about the professor of English who was removed by police from a New York Starbucks over a bagel-related language complaint? A more mild-mannered professor of English, Dennis Baron of the University of Illinois, investigates.

Apparently an English professor was ejected from a Starbucks on Manhattan's Upper West Side for — she claims — not deploying Starbucks' mandatory corporate-speak. The story immediately lit up the internet, turning her into an instant celebrity. Just as Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who couldn't take it any more, became the heroic employee who finally bucked the system when he cursed out nasty passengers over the intercom and deployed the emergency slide to make his escape, Lynne Rosenthal was the customer who cared so much about good English that she finally stood up to the coffee giant and got run off the premises by New York's finest for her troubles. Well, at least that's what she says happened.

According to the New York Post, Rosenthal, who says she has an English Ph. D. from Columbia, ordered a multigrain bagel at Starbucks but "became enraged when the barista at the franchise" asked, "Do you want butter or cheese?" She continued, "I refused to say 'without butter or cheese.' When you go to Burger King, you don't have to list the six things you don't want. Linguistically, it's stupid, and I'm a stickler for correct English." When she refused to answer, she claims that she was told, "You're not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese!" And then the cops came.

Stickler for good English she may be, but management countered that the customer then made a scene and hurled obscenities at the barista, and according to the Post, police who were called to the scene insist that no one was ejected from the coffee shop.

I too am a professor of English, and I too hate the corporate speak of "tall, grande, venti" that has invaded our discourse. But highly-paid consultants, not minimum-wage coffee slingers, created those terms (you won't find a grande or a venti in Italian coffee bars). Consultants also told Starbuck's to omit the apostrophe from its corporate name and to call its workers baristas, not coffee-jerks.

My son was a barista (should that be baristo?) at Borders (also no apostrophe, though McDonald's keeps the symbol, mostly) one summer, and many of my students work in restaurants, bars, and chain retail stores. The language that employees of the big chains use on the job is carefully scripted and choreographed by market researchers, who insist that employees speak certain words and phrases, while others are forbidden, because they think that's what moves "product." Scripts even tell workers how and where and when to move and what expression to paste on their faces. Employees who go off-script and use their own words risk demerits, or worse, if they're caught by managers, grouchy customers, or the ubiquitous secret shoppers who ride the franchise circuit looking for infractions.

I'm no fan of this corporate scripting. Calling customers "guests" and employees "associates" doesn't mean I can treat Target like a friend's living room or that the clerks who work there are anything but low-level employees who associate with one another, not with corporate vice presidents. I don't think this kind of language-enforcement increases sales or makes our dining experience any more pleasant.

Nonetheless, my sympathy is with the employee in this case, not the customer. Yes, "the customer is always right" is long gone from most businesses, but on the other hand, baristas, servers, and retail clerks, not to mention flight attendants, not only get told by management exactly what to do and say in every situation, but they also have to put up with a lot from the few overly-demanding customers who probably don't even remember what the minimum wage is and often neglect a tip or, if it's not a tipping business, a friendly word, if only the polite though scripted "Have a nice day."

Surely everyone overreacted during this incident at Starbucks, triggered by corporate-speech or just two people having a very bad day. But for me the story highlights the many constraints placed on our language by forces that may seem beyond our control. We are asked to believe that corporate success depends on uniformly-consistent products sold in cloned franchises by employees whose language is stamped from templates sent out by headquarters. But the uniformity is an illusion. Robots make cars that are all alike, but some of those cars can't seem to stop very well, while others have no problem at all.Starbucks can make a bad cup of coffee from time to time, Target can sell a defective t-shirt, and fast-food burgers, whose manufacture and cooking is carefully controlled, can pass along E. coli.

We want dependable products, yes, but when there's too much uniformity we all crave the unique, the variant, the imperfection that makes life interesting. When it comes to language, people, employees and customers alike, can only stand so much sameness, so many templates. We definitely do not want fries with that, because, the way language works, we all have to go off-script from time to time, or go mad.  


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 17th 2010, 6:19 AM
Comment by: Irina G. (Vienna Austria)
Couldn't she say 'A bagel with nothing' ?! She should have watched more Seinfeld and study less grammar.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 8:17 AM
Comment by: bluefade (Chagrin Falls, OH)
Good article.

What really bothers me is that people have reached this point in society where their frustrations are brought to a boiling point by the slightest provocation. Was the English professor really all that upset because of corporate speak or was there something much bigger that had been simmering inside and this was just the camel's straw?

I hate it when people are in line at a fast food restaurant and place their order starting with the word "Gimme", such as "Gimme a Big Mac & fries." I always feel like asking if their parents ever taught them manners but I don't ask. I just keep quiet for fear of creating a scene such as the good professor created or worse yet getting my you know what kicked in a way I wasn't planning on that day.

"Pick your battles" my mom used to say. I would like to add to that and say pick your battles as to keep yourself from looking foolish.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Eoghan Odinsson (Haymarket, VA)
My biggest pet peeves are the scripts that customer service people have to use when you call for...say cable television issues.

"Thank you for calling Company X, it will be my pleasure to serve you today"

You relate your issue and they respond.... "I'm so sorry to hear that, let me see if we can rectify that situation..."

Then when they can't fix the problem... " Is there anything else I can do for you today?"

Yes, address my first problem adequately.

Oh well.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 9:03 AM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
I have been known to go to Starbucks with crib notes from my daughter so that I know what to order. I just read from my script and hope I don't get any questions I can't answer. I have learned, however, that I can get something resembling a large cafe au lait if I order a vinte (vinti?) SOLO latte (full-strength and I climb the walls). They call the real cafe au lait something else, but I can't remember what that is. (And, of course, instead of pretending to know French I should say I really want half coffee, half milk, please. Skim, when I'm being good.)

An article was published a few years ago about this issue, but I gave my copy to my daughter and she "lost" it, and I can't remember its title, author, or source. The critic made a similar point that these strange words for coffee servings were created by advertising gurus and that consumers suffer from "scotosis"--we willingly allow ourselves a blind spot about who harvests our coffee (and other products), who profits from it, and, as Dennis points out, who serves that corporately-controlled consumer item. Does anyone know the article and its author?

A relevant commentary on this issue is "The Story of Stuff," which can be found online. Even better, read the novel _Cloud Atlas_ by David Mitchell, in which (in at least one of its episodes)genetically programmed clones a la Huxley's _Brave New World_ , drugged "fabricants" with limited vocabularies, exist only to serve fast food to "purebloods" who themselves only exist to be consumers. At least, even though our servers are required to respond robotically, they are still recognizable as our children, college students, and other human beings much like us.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Joyce, I like your observations. I'm still trying to puzzle out your name, however! (LOL)

LOL is about as contemporary as I get, or as 'with it'. I've never eaten at MacD's (though we did have cokes there once years ago), or had coffee or anything else at Starbuck's. I have coffee at home in the morning, instant, and fair trade! I was pleased to find it fair trade and organic at the hospital where my husband spent a few weeks. That's my most recent experience with eating out.

About that server though (why barista?)... At least she didn't say, "That's not a problem!" Which is my pet peeve (one of them). I'm still trying to find out when that expression first got used...
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
I like the topic of the article. Some of it seemed like filler, but, I liked reading it as it brought up some good points about marketing. I think the companies should be allowed to write scripts and if the guests don't like them, then they should contact corporate to discuss if the guests like the product enough to contribute something to the company.

I like the tall, grande, and venti now. It's a change from small, medium, large and I think it evokes the intended attitude per se for both the associate and the customer (those that like the experience of Starbucks).
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
The English professor may have gotten her language correct but she was standing on the dock when the human relations boat pulled out of the harbor. Angry hurtful words and actions based upon attempted enforcement of militant linguistic standards is no way to engage in life. We should strive to be good for others in this world. The woman was stomping the Golden Rule into the ground.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 11:43 AM
Comment by: Arlene R.
I recently posted on FB that I get so annoyed when I order a hamburger (when there are also at least several different cheeseburger offerings on the menu) and I am always asked by the server "Would you like cheese?".
If I wanted cheese on my hamburger I would have ordered a CHEESEBURGER!!!!! I typically don't go to chain restaurants so it's not the corporate-speak---- I think it's just plain nonsense/stupidity or maybe trying to upsell. I never attributed it to a grammar issue. So, I always wait for the inevitable question after I order my hamburger (because I am NOT going to say "without cheese") and then tell the server "If I wanted a hamburger with cheese I would have ordered the cheeseburger".
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 12:04 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Jane B., I share your irritation at "That's not a problem" or its close cousin "No problem", especially when the latter is used in place of "You're welcome." When I thank restaurant or store employees for helping me, it's because I appreciate their service and I want to be pleasant. When they respond "No problem", I know they're trying to be friendly and gracious in return, but in a way it seems to me that their response implies that I think that I caused them a problem, and that they are reassuring me that I didn't. Sometimes I want to say "I wasn't apologizing or asking for your forgiveness - I was thanking you! I know that there was no problem - that I haven't been an imposition, a bother, or rude or obnoxious. You and I both behaved just fine!"

My "thank you" suggests that they did things right; their "No problem" seems to suggests that I didn't really do anything wrong. Commenting on the lack of a negative thing is not necessarily a compliment: "You don't smell bad, you're not ugly or stupid or incompetent, you don't have spinach in your teeth ... I don't find you unpleasant at all! No problem!"

I know how petty and picky this all sounds, which is why I don't inflict these thoughts on nice employees (or friends! Relatives! Even my own children!?) who are just trying to be polite. I remind myself that "No problem" is gaining ground in our society as a response to "Thank you" and that I don't need to take these things literally. I actually enjoy this detail-oriented examination of our language (they don't call me "The Happy Quibbler" for nothin'!) I'm grateful for this forum, where I can air my grammatical grievances freely; we recovering English teachers need outlets such as this. I assume that anyone reading this will welcome my input. Thank you! (...DON'T SAY IT!!)
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 12:04 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Jane B., I share your irritation at "That's not a problem" or its close cousin "No problem", especially when the latter is used in place of "You're welcome." When I thank restaurant or store employees for helping me, it's because I appreciate their service and I want to be pleasant. When they respond "No problem", I know they're trying to be friendly and gracious in return, but in a way it seems to me that their response implies that I think that I caused them a problem, and that they are reassuring me that I didn't. Sometimes I want to say "I wasn't apologizing or asking for your forgiveness - I was thanking you! I know that there was no problem - that I haven't been an imposition, a bother, or rude or obnoxious. You and I both behaved just fine!"

My "thank you" suggests that they did things right; their "No problem" seems to suggests that I didn't really do anything wrong. Commenting on the lack of a negative thing is not necessarily a compliment: "You don't smell bad, you're not ugly or stupid or incompetent, you don't have spinach in your teeth ... I don't find you unpleasant at all! No problem!"

I know how petty and picky this all sounds, which is why I don't inflict these thoughts on nice employees (or friends! Relatives! Even my own children!?) who are just trying to be polite. I remind myself that "No problem" is gaining ground in our society as a response to "Thank you" and that I don't need to take these things literally. I actually enjoy this detail-oriented examination of our language (they don't call me "The Happy Quibbler" for nothin'!) I'm grateful for this forum, where I can air my grammatical grievances freely; we recovering English teachers need outlets such as this. I assume that anyone reading this will welcome my input. Thank you! (...DON'T SAY IT!!)
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Roger B.
And she probably kept a number of people from getting waited upon because of her childish tantrum. And she's a PhD? Wow. There's another meaning for PhD, BTW.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 1:32 PM
Comment by: Karen M.
Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't see how this story has anything to do with language, except that Rosenthal said it was about language. Good customer service - regardless of corporate speak - would dictate that the cashier translate what the customer wants and enter it thus with out demading the customer say something particular. When I go to Starbucks, I order a small, medium, or large drink and let them translate. They always have, so far.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 1:36 PM
Comment by: Barbara M. (Roseburg, OR)
One would think that a person with a PhD would be smart enough to say "neither, thank you." Or, "I just want a plain bagel." Advanced degrees may indicate advanced knowledge, but they apparently do not have any correlation to wisdom.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Eoghan Odinsson (Haymarket, VA)
Well said Barbara!
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Mark K. (Temecula, CA)
She seems unstable.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 3:30 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Beyond wondering if Columbia sells Phd's, this article seems to indicate the educational community is rather clueless about business if not life. The Phd would send a louder message by spending her money at a Starbucks competitor rather than hassling a employee while purchasing.

When Professor Barron writes, "We are asked to believe that corporate success depends on uniformly-consistent products sold in cloned franchises by employees whose language is stamped from templates sent out by headquarters." he too misses the point.

Consumers in the US want uniformity and the better companies provide at least the illusion if not the desired result. The company, we consumers believe to be the most uniform, brings in the most money.

As to the comments, I prefer 'no problem' to thank you. Perhaps because, I don't associate the 'no problem' with me or my behavior but rather to the request. Countless times I've been told, "thank you" only to find out later that there was a problem.

'No worries' is another response to thank you that I like. But again, to me, it refers to the process and not to players.

Arlene, I don't believe asking if you want cheese on your hamburger is just upselling. In my experience it is the wait-staff trying to be perfectly clear to avoid a complaint or more work. Remember, they are working with the public and we aren't too bright.

Joyce, I too find the Starbucks language too confusing and spend my money elsewhere.

Mike
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 3:40 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
I prefer the uniformity from Starbucks to Starbucks, so, I don't have to guess what they expect to hear as I place my order. If there were other customers during the doctor's issue, they probably wanted her away from their space.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 4:24 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
There's no apostrophe in Borders because the bookstore chain was named after its founders, brothers Tom and Louis Borders.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 6:37 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
The article about Starbucks and "scotosis" (the word for "blind spot" being my main reason for remembering it, because I had to look it up at the time) is "Economic Citizenship and the Rhetoric of Gourmet Coffee" by Paula Mathieu. _Rhetoric Review_, Vol. 18, No. 1. (Autumn, 1999), pp. 112-127. And, as the word "rhetoric" implies, the issue is ALL about language. The high-falutin' faux Italian (French? Portuguese?) makes Starbucks customers feel sophisticated and less likely to question the subculture of trendy consumerism in which they participate. But, as has been said already, the issue may be more about civility, and how using the "correct" words in this instance seemed to take precedence over courtesy (on both sides).
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 7:16 PM
Comment by: Lya C.
As a self-respecting provider of espresso drinks, I have to say that I really hate Starbuck's. There, I said it. I usually don't have such definitive feelings about commercial entities, but Starbuck's is a special case. They started small and hip, and grew to be omnipresent and tyrannical. Omnipresent and hip would have been okay.

I am the friendly laid-back student who gets your cappuccino foam just right, layers your latte, creams the espresso, and has cool jazz on in the background. The thing is, I wouldn't last two seconds in the Starbuck's. Corporate scripting?? Yeeech, pas moi. To be fair, they wouldn't have me either.

As a caring provider of all things espresso, I side with the customer on this one. Sure, I hate it when customers come in with their newly forged Starbuck's linguistics and try to order a Venti, and I have to spend precious moments trying to glean what size that relates to in the real world, but in the case presented above the counter help was guilty of speaking a virtually undecipherable mythic language. Romulan would have been more identifiable; well, okay maybe not. Regardless, a simple request for a bagel was given, and met with policed semantics of Orwellian proportions. The natural, reflexive action of any human so besieged is a knee-jerk get-out-of-my-head counter that is at once disgust and outrage.

I can understand the sentiment voiced here that the counter help was only following orders, but is that really a defense? Are we really just robotons at heart? Is "you're not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese" an appropriate reply to a customer? Call me old school, but I think I'll stick to Romulan.

p.s. Don't forget to tip your counter intelligence. :)
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 9:06 PM
Comment by: Lya C.
I'm reminded of the scene in the movie Five Easy Pieces in which Jack Nicholson orders plain toast. If my memory serves, he finally has to order a sandwich with everything on the side. Perhaps that would have been advisable in the Starbuck's case.
Tuesday August 17th 2010, 10:09 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
And then there's the woman who couldn't get a 'breakfast' without the egg. Until she asked to have it raw, unshelled. That sort of ingenuity will get you far in life! And in 'corporate dining places' -- if Denny's and the like qualify!
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 2:55 PM
Comment by: Roma L. (West Hills, CA)
Forget good grammar (although, as a medical writer, I too am a stickler). Whatever happened to just plain old good manners and treating others with the same respect you would want for yourself? Could not the good professor have simply said; "Neither, thank you."?

As always, I went back to the primary source and read the Post article. It sounds like this person went into the Starbucks with a history and a chip on her shoulder. She mentioned that she refuses to use the terms "venti" or "grande", but likes to "mess with them" and use "small" and "large" instead. It seems to me that if she wants to get what she wants, she should speak the language of the locale -- when in Rome, etc. Is it really so terrible? Why should "venti" be considered bad English? It is, after all, just a proper noun developed as part of Starbucks brand. Sheesh -- language changes all the time around politics, religion, economics, etc. If it didn't, no one would need an Old English Dictionary to translate "Beowulf."
Tuesday August 24th 2010, 5:17 PM
Comment by: Paul L.
It is so hard not to launch into a grammar lesson when a server comes to your table and asks, "How is everything tasting?"
Wednesday August 25th 2010, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Suroor A.
I agree that Starbucks language is confusing. The first time I tried to figure out how to order a regular coffee, regular size, I gave up and just said so, and the employee figured it out. So that's what I've stuck to since then. There's no point yelling at the staff for corporate speak--they're just trying to keep their underpaid jobs, and the least we, as customers, can do is be polite and take up any issues we have with the management.
Wednesday September 8th 2010, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Rana Anuran (Silver Spring, MD)
I don't believe,"Do you want butter or cheese?" is corporate script. Corporate script would have been "Do you want butter or cream cheese" or "Do you want butter, or jelly, or lox, or creamcheese, or capers, or lettuce, or tomato, or onion, or mustard or catsup?" See what happens when baristas go off script.
Monday September 13th 2010, 12:10 PM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
I was a 40-something post-divorced used-to-be high school English teacher in 2003 and an "aspiring" Starbucks barista (so I could have health benefits (20 hours per week required, back then anyway) after I quit my graveyard shift security officer job (that had health bennies) to copyedit and proofread as a freelancer.

Talk about scraping by and then when they moved up the opening time to 6, I had to get up at 4:30 to get ready for work at a minimum wage counter job at Starbucks, work my five or six hours, then drive home, shower/change and get to my proofreading/editing gig.

All this to say that those customers who come in giving staffers a hard time when it's undeserved (some "baristas" can come across as cappuccino elitist jerks) should learn their manners and zip it. Even if the barista acts like he or she (and in this case, an apt gender-neutral usage) is the Liberace of the Tall single solo triple dotte latte, leave it alone. Who cares?! If working at Starbucks is that person's ideal of the daily grind, let the beanhead be.

Disclaimer: As an avid coffee bon vivant, comments herein are intended solely for the reading pleasure and edification and not meant to construe an endorsement of any other coffee bar such as DUNKIN DONUTS, MCDONALD'S OR CARIBOU.
Thursday September 23rd 2010, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Rebekah W. (Fort Myers, FL)
-ista=masculine OR feminine, in Spanish at least. And that would be an employee, NOT a emmployee as I read through some of the comments!
Thursday September 23rd 2010, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Rebekah W. (Fort Myers, FL)
-ista=masculine OR feminine, in Spanish at least. And that would be an employee, NOT a employee as I read through some of the comments!
Thursday September 23rd 2010, 4:32 PM
Comment by: Bridget S.
I have heard "off scipt" employee ad libs and much prefer the use of scripted material.
I have another word for "scripting" - training! Without training. "customers", "clients", "guests", encounter "Whatcha want?" "ugg" "you don't want any of that do you?" etc.
Hooray for training even if training employees what to say is giving them a script.
Boo for rude people who have no self control.
Saturday October 30th 2010, 2:51 PM
Comment by: David H.
Thanks, Dennis! Your insightful piece has clarified my reasons for not frequenting Starbucks or MacDonald's. Aside from the ghastly coffee and inedible food, I realised that I just could not stomach the scripted language that the automatons at the counters are forced to use!

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