Wednesday, 26 October 2011

In which X marks the spot

You can consider this to be last week's column part two, if you want (what do you MEAN you didn't ready last week's column?) because I intended to cover it in the first one then got so riled up that I ran out of space. So while last week I mused on the tricky intricacies of physical greetings, in a piece I mentally subheaded 'Get your mouth off my face, stranger', today I'd like to turn your attention towards written communication.

It's on my mind at the moment, because this week I received a disturbing email. From a PR I'd never communicated with before, it was a standard 'Hello arbitrary journalist, please plug my product' email. But it ended with three kisses. THREE KISSES. It's virtually tongues. There are people I've known for years, people I've shared houses, bedrooms and ice lollies with, for whom three kisses would still seem gushingly forward. Three kisses basically leaves a trace of saliva on your inbox. I was affronted.

But worse than the three kisses (after I'd wiped my screen down several times with an antibac wipe I felt ready to let go and move on) is the problem of replying. What do you send back to three kisses? No kisses is a virtual blank. It's pulling away with a begrudging shoulder-pat when your date goes in for a doorstep snog. One kiss is worse, almost mocking, while two puts you into dangerous reciprocation territory. What if they reply with four? Then you with five? And before you know it, you've living together in a cottage in Dorset with a cat called Mr Whiskerson.

The trouble is, as with so many facets of modern life, there are no established rules. We need a 21st century Emily Post figure, guiding us firmly in the dos and don'ts of emoticon usage, exclamation mark application and 'reply all' politics. 'Emily Email', we could call her for the sake of accuracy. "Think carefully before you LMAO," she would instruct. "When often a ROFL will suffice."

Back in the midst of Threekissgate, and I'm still reeling. I'm used to over-familiarity at work, of course - maintaining a job in the media being the merry-go-round of mutual bottom-licking that it is - but this is excessive. Besides, journalistic integrity means my affections cannot be bought. Except with food, complimentary holidays or free electrical equipment.

By far the best thing to do, every time you're tempted to pop a little x on the bottom of a work email, is to test it out by doing the kiss out loud. Go on. If you can read "Hi Barry, It is imperative that you send the contract over before the end of the day so that we can secure client approval. MWAH" and feel completely comfortable, then by all means go ahead. If "Maud, you have consistently failed to top up the photocopier toner and been caught stealing post-it notes from the stationery cupboard. Therefore I am afraid we have no choice but to terminate your contract. Hugs 'n' snuggles." seems to fit the bill, then knock yourself out.

But just remember, kisses on a screen can quickly translate into real-life kisses, and then you've got a whole new trauma on your hands. For details: see last week's column.

Monday, 17 October 2011

In which I do not turn the other cheek

You’re meeting someone. Not a close friend, but an acquaintance. Look, there they are! They’re coming towards you.

You have two seconds to assess the situation and decide your plan of attack. They have an outstretched arm. You prepare for arm-on-back contact. But what’s this? Face! Face is heading towards yours at an alarming rate. Where is it going? Shoulder? Ear? Cheek? Left or right? QUICK, manouevre appropriately. BAM, you’ve got lip-on-cheek action. Ok. A kiss.

But while the residue is still wet on your face, you’ve got another judgement call to make. Are they going in for the other? Can you pull away or are they cannoning off to the other side of your head like a puckered guided missile? Is there any danger of nose-brushing? Or worse, have you gone in for a second cheek while they’ve started to pull away? Are you doing the dreaded this-way-that-way face dance? Are you wishing you’d never turned up?

Of all the social minefields we gingerly traverse in every day life, this is a pretty old one. I reckon there were Medieval serfs groaning into glasses of mead, going, "and then I thought she were goeth in for other cheek and I landeth smacketh on her lips." In more formal times the handshake was king - what a man does standing up, a lady does sitting down and a dog does on three legs, as the joke goes - but in our touchy-feely-gropey age, even with perfect strangers you can expect anything on a scale from curt nod to tongues.
Personally, I'm a fan of the one cheek kiss, with optional hug. One cheek is sincere. It can be as brief or as lingering as you wish, and removes all need to spend any time nose-to-nose, the point of a greeting when experts confirm your insides are most likely to shrivel up and die. With one cheek you've got more margin for error - if you make it to shoulderville without any clear statement you can make a vague smacking noise near their ear and hope for the best.

Meaning no offence to our continental cousins, Brits doing the two-cheek thing just looks affected. It screams, 'I saw this once in a film'. We don't do it well. We dither, we hesitate, and can't avoid adding an onomatopoeic flourish every time. You don't have to SAY 'mwah', you just DO a 'mwah' - it's a concept we've still not grasped.

But whatever the outcome of the greeting and however horrifying the mishaps on getting there, one rule stands firm. You must never acknowledge awkwardness. For to cheerily say, "oop, you were going in for another one there, weren't you?" is to destroy your companion with the Sword of Social Discomfort. You have knocked them down when they're most vulnerable. They may not recover confidence for several weeks, reliving the horror every time they encounter a human.

No, you must make the most of whatever dithering, air-smacking, ear, nuzzling, back-patting routine you manage to improvise between the two of you, then swiftly move on. You can always send them flowers later to apologise, if necessary.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

In which Mum is not the word

I worry that the world is getting sillier. You might not think so, given that we no longer ride penny farthings or believe manure cures baldness, but then every so often a story comes along to confirm the theory. One came along last week. The word "Mumpreneur" has just been added to the Collins English Dictionary.

I'll just give you a moment there, to gather yourself, read the word again, say it out loud, and snort tea through your nose. Now mop it up. No, not with your slee- ah well, too late. Are we settled? Good, then I'll go on.

There are several reasons that the news made me do a full-body shudder and a sherbet lemon face. Firstly, as the more astute among you might have noticed, the word simply doesn't work as a pun. It's a syllable short. It doesn't rhyme with the original word. "Mum-tre-preneur" is a slight improvement but still, frankly, stupid.

This pains me greatly, as I'm a big fan of punning - so much so that I've almost managed to build a career on it. The day I used the headline 'Better the Breville you know' on a selection of toasted sandwich recipes was one of my proudest life moments to date. But puns deserve respect, not this whimsical mangling. If we continue casually jamming words onto the front of other words with no regard for true pun power, we'll end up living inside the worst newspaper in the world. What if 'Ladyecutive' becomes a term? Or 'womeeting'? When will people learn that being female doesn't mean we need our own set of special, rose-scented terms to dress up life's more serious facets? The original words will do just fine.

Which brings us neatly to the second reason. It is a pointless word. It means 'a woman who combines running a business with looking after children' - and there is a word for that. It's entrepreneur. Y'know, that word we already have, which makes no specification on gender or parental status in the first place. Not only does labelling women with a twee pretend-title belittle their achievements (both in boardrooms and delivery rooms), but it's also a rough deal for the bog standard entrepreneurs without Mummy-caches to their names.

Why are there no Dadpreneurs? Those businessmen in American movies who walk out of the Big Meeting to race across town to their kid's oboe recital, they never got a special name. Except Chip or Brad or something, I guess.

Lastly, the most immediate of all reasons - it's naff. Use the word Mumpreneur and you have instantly reduced the subject to a Boden-clad mimsy selling organic jams at a farmers' market. It has no dignity, no clout. It suggests you might deliver quarterly reports written in glitter glue, with an unidentified stain in the corner.

Let's just be clear - being a mother is one of the most admirable things to be in the world. Mums can locate a lost PE kit, pay a gas bill and wipe a spitty hanky over your face with one hand while making a fully authentic Roman battle helmet out of papier mache with the other. Mums are terrific. But I'm no more likely to invest in your business because you've given the miracle of life to multiple miniature people. Stop ovary-boasting. It's irrelevant.

Think up a good pun, on the other hand, and we might have a deal.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

In which I'll just Thwazock that

Last week, Google turned 13. It's a strange thought, that the Grandaddy of the internet, that bottomless source of wisdom and answers, is actually nothing more than a fledgling teenager. It will soon, we can only assume, start sprouting blackheads, drinking White Lightning behind a hedge and mooning over the boy down the road in poetry written in the back of our exercise books (who would this boy be? Yahoo? Surely not Jeeves?).

But as all parents force themselves to believe during the door-slamming, sebum-secreting phase, we wouldn't be without them for the world. God bless Google. God bless it for many reasons, but mainly for taking a truly ridiculous word and making it a verb that we all use daily. Imagine if that word had been 'splobble' or 'thwazock'. "Hang on, I'll just Thwazock that." Bonkers.

But the question this milestone really prompts is of course, what did we do before Google? I've come up with some theories:

1. Knew stuff

There's certainly room for an argument that we knew less before Google, not more. It may well be true. I didn't know all the states of the USA or how to properly truss a chicken before Google, though to be fair I was 10 and as such poorly informed in general. But there must be many other things that, before we could search them afresh every time we went on a computer, we just remembered instead. Things like how the Keeping Up Appearances theme tune went, or where Cheshire is. How to spell recommend. Your own postcode. Faced with one of these tricky questions in contemporary times, rather than setting cerebral cogs whirring, it is natural for one's fingers to start itching for a keyboard.

2. Encarta

When the Bravo family first got a computer, it came with one CD Rom. That CD Rom was Encarta. It wasn't the complete version, mind you, just a free limited trial version that probably caused significant gaps in my knowledge every time a search stopped short of the paid-for section. But still, I loved it. It was the source of endless, completely uncensored information, and also my main source of entertainment on the computer after I'd got bored of minesweeper and used up our printer ink on pictures of dolphins for my bedroom wall.

3. Teletext

If you were born after 1994 you may skip this section - it doesn't concern you. For everyone older, the word invokes both a rush of joy and some involuntary finger cramp, in memory of all those hours flicking though pages of yellow text to find out what the weather was going to be, or how much we could get a package deal to Lanzarote for. Teletext taught us patience. It taught us that knowledge is always out there, but sometimes you have to work hard to find it. And it doesn't always load properly, so sometimes you have to translate it from jagged half-words that look like Space Invaders. But once you have that knowledge, oh boy did you appreciate it.