According to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang, the expression “take the piss out of”, meaning to pull someone’s leg, derives from the notion of deflating (like a bladder).
It’s a term that may be heard increasingly often in the 2,800 public houses belonging to the brewers Bass. Violence may ensue, so this column is in part a public health warning. If you are averse to bad language, ill feeling and spilt blood, take care when you enter beneath the sign of the red triangle.
The problems I envisage stem from Bass’s latest ploy to win customers. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, psychology is the last resort of the marketer. Which explains why staff from Bass’s managed houses are being sent on courses that include “neuro-linguistic programming”. To people more used to English than psychobabble, that sounds suspiciously like brain washing. One imagines pub managers emerging from their sessions with the shrinks, eyes glazed, teeth bared in counterfeit smiles, and chanting: “What’s yours, squire? Lovely day, innit? Pity about the bloody Government, har, har.”
In truth, neuro-linguistic programming is worse than that, much worse. It is concerned with creating the ability to “establish a rapport with the drinker by aping his personality and conversational style”.
“We want bar staff to look at customers more carefully, and to ask themselves where they come from, how they speak, what sort of jobs they do and whether they live locally or have just dropped in for the evening,” explains training and development manager Ruta Baines.
This is demanding a lot of the average barman, who will be expected to slide effortlessly between terms such as “diamond geezer” and “good chap”, according to the drinker with whom he is in conversation, while simultaneously mastering the glottal acrobatics required for the former mode of address and the mouthful of marbles for the latter.
Mimicry as a method of winning the confidence of others is an established psychological theory. In his book Psycho-Selling (BBC Books, 12.99), psychologist Bruce King describes the technique: “All you need do from the moment that you meet your prospect is mimic as many of his or her actions as you possibly can, as quickly as you can.
“If you are greeted with a firm handshake, respond with a firm one. If the handshake is weak, yours must also be weak. If your prospect remains standing with a hand in their (sic) pocket, you remain standing with a hand in your pocket… If your prospect crosses their (sic) legs, you cross yours… Everything you do that mimics what he or she is doing will help to cement a relationship with that person more quickly than anything else.”
If that’s best taken with a pinch of salt, it’s worst with a skinful of lager. Just imagine:
Enter customer. (Distinguishing features: greasy pony-tail, nose ring, nervous twitch, speech impediment. He walks to the bar.) “A puh, puh, puh pint of la, la, lager.”
Barman (Winking back) “Puh, puh, puh pint, coming up.”
Customer (Eyes inflamed. Teeth clenched): “Are you taking the puh, puh, puh piss?”
Dangerous stuff, this neuro-linguistic programming. Amazingly, however, Bass claims that pilot courses in central London hostelries have seen takings increase by up to 6,000 a week. If true, that is probably best explained by word getting about that in certain of Bass’s metropolitan pubs the staff are barmy. If you cross your legs and put your thumb in your ear, they’ll do the same. If you do your Star Trek’s Spock voice, they’ll do one too. Bit of a giggle, really.
But hazardous all the same. I remember an Irish publican, the least affected or vain of men, explaining why he wore a bow tie, normally the badge of the insufferable extrovert. Experience back home had taught him that in the highly charged atmosphere of a pub, the best kind of neckwear was the least easily grabbed. Men, he added, had been half throttled, eyes popping, faces blue and tongues poking out liked mottled carrots, through injudiciously wearing a necktie behind the bar.
I hope Bass has taken the simple precaution of issuing its neuro-linguistical staff with clip-on bow ties, just in case their careful looks at customers, their questions about where they come from, what sort of job they have, and whether they live locally, and, above all, their clever mimicry are misinterpreted.
But if barmen face problems, what about those females who used to be known as barmaids? When a pock-faced male customer (or fella, in The Sun’s demotic usage) leers lasciviously from under his reversed baseball cap, does neuro-linguistic best practice require the pleasantry to be returned? If so, that might explain increased takings of up to 6,000 a week. Trouble is, it might also explain subsequent charges of sexual harassment. When a hot-blooded youth with a belly half full of fire and the remainder of lager, sees an answering glint in a female barperson’s eye, he is apt to misread the signals and mistake psychological deftness for raging nymphomania.
A Bass spokesman says: “These days, pub managers need a wide range of skills, from information technology to accountancy and management techniques.” He forgot to mention self-defence, first aid, and lightning reflexes. For there is always the odd customer who, suspecting that his bladder is being deflated, will cavil and jib, and tear the place the pieces.