Keith Hann: Shop assistant's greetings are far from all right

Greetings afforded the general public by assistants in shops, bars and restaurants have changed dramatically as Keith Hann explains

If anyone thought to revive that great 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served?, the first thing they would need to revisit is the title.

Because the universal greeting in the nation’s shops, pubs and restaurants has now become “Are you all right there?” To which a male speaker will almost invariably append the word “mate”.

I am led to believe that the correct conversational reply to this gambit is “I’m good” (short version) or “Yeah, I’m good, mate” (in full).

The problem is that, in reality, I’m very far from good. Because only five words into my nascent relationship with whichever shop assistant, barperson or receptionist is addressing me, I find myself in a thoroughly bad mood. I want to respond by pointing out that theirs is a blanking stupid question.

Because clearly I am not all right, in the sense of being in full possession of everything I could possibly desire. In fact, though it may come as a surprise to them to learn this, I find myself in want of a newspaper, drink, meal, ticket, check-in or some other trifle of that sort.

Which is why I have taken the trouble to present myself at their place of work and join a dispiriting queue for their attention. Having finally reached the front of that, I would now very much like them to provide whatever product or service their employer is offering speedily, efficiently and with the modicum of respect that is due to the customer who ultimately pays their wages.

Which might be more evident if they kicked off the exchange with something more along the lines of “How may I help you, sir?”

This wish apparently marks me down as stiff, formal, old-fashioned and undemocratic – all of which I am happy to accept as perfectly accurate descriptions of my character.

I can still remember vividly the first time a shop assistant addressed me as “sir” rather than “son”, in Turners’ camera shop in Pink Lane in 1968. It put a spring in my step for days. I little thought that, 45 years later, I would have regressed to being classed as some spotty minimum wage employee’s “mate”. No wonder I do more of my shopping online every month.

However, while the internet undoubtedly has its uses, it is also a joy to escape from it from time to time. I write this having just returned from three nights in a friends’ cottage in Snowdonia, where the presence of a large mountain at the bottom of the garden ensured a complete absence of TV and mobile reception.

Deprived of news, soaps, dramas, emails, phone calls, texts, Twitter and Facebook, we talked to each other, ate and drank to delightful excess, and tried to work some of it off by walking through the hills. Which are, for some reason, curiously free of the giant wind turbines that seem destined to proliferate throughout Northumberland.

Add in the proximity of sandy beaches as fine as anything in the North East, and a positive feast of steam railways, and you may perhaps understand why I have returned more relaxed and refreshed than I have felt after any break I have taken in many years.

In fact, only one thing marred the whole experience. It occurred when we walked into a chapel near my friends’ house, now converted into a licensed café to cater for the physical needs of walkers rather than the spiritual needs of the local community.

I strolled cheerfully up to the counter only to be greeted with the dreaded words “Are you all right there?”

To which I could only reply, with infinite sadness, “Well, I was.”

Shortly afterwards, by pure serendipity, I found myself on a beach in Tremadoc Bay where I secured a faint mobile signal for just long enough to place a winning bid on eBay for the Newcastle trolleybus destination blind that has long been the one material possession I felt I needed to make my life complete.

So: yes, strategic access to the internet has its benefits. But if I had the choice, I’d gladly give it up tomorrow for the polite and personal service of the slower-paced analogue world in which I grew up.

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