"With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"

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Am I paranoid to wonder whether AT&T's "customer-service" representative was punishing Stanley Fish for correcting her grammar? Or, more precisely, for ranting? 

He kind of asked for it. I mean, she was instructed to say "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?" He complained. No doubt she has also been instructed to say "I'm sorry you feel that way" in response to any complaint she can't resolve. So when that remark elicited another complaint from Fish, there wasn't much she could do to get him off the phone (and surely she has also been instructed to get callers off the phone ASAP) except to fob him off on someone else. So she invented a problem with his Social Security number and shipped him off to limbo.

Real human communication has been driven far underground in our dealings with corporate representatives. Paradoxically, corporate goals of courtesy and efficiency are what drove it there. Of course, the result is neither courteous nor efficient -- it's just mechanized. The only partial solution I know is to stay really, really nice, even when I'm really, really annoyed. Does anyone else have another strategy that's more satisfying?


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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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