Let us this week extend a sympathetic hand to the Spaniards, a noble race whose misfortune is to be the victim of both a pleasant climate and marketing.
Those, at any rate, are the immediate causes of their malaise. More profound than either was the advent of cheap air travel, for it unleashed first a trickle and then a tide of British tourists drawn as if by a siren’s allure to the sun-soaked beaches of the Costas. The Spaniards, though no strangers to blood and conflict, were unsuspecting and unprepared for invasion by a tribe of such fearful aspect and dreadful ritual.
Just as the ancient Romans, who had conquered most of Britannia by AD46, recoiled in horror at the sight of kilted Scots pouring over the border, the Spaniards flinched and quailed at the oncoming Brits in shorts. First, southern Spain and then the Spanish islands surrendered, and Iberia would never be quite the same again. As the years passed, Spanish holidays became cheaper and cheaper, permitting a still greater influx of Anglo Saxons whose reputation for drunkenness, violence and sexual incontinence was surpassed, but only narrowly, by their brutish taste in food and clothing. No sooner had one cargo of Brits waddled back to the airport, reddened from an incautious blend of sun and booze and cheerfully effing and blinding beneath giant souvenir sombreros, than another lot arrived to replace them.
The Spanish don’t go in for Gallic shrugs. They merely resigned themselves with the fatalistic stoicism that is characteristic of a southern Catholic culture. And the money came in handy.
But something strange has happened. The Brits, whose arrival had been as predictable as that of migrating birds, are not turning up. The fish and chips are fried in vain, the tavernas belt out old Beatles tunes into an echoing void, las ambulancias and la policia stand by with nothing to do, the mop-and-bucket street cleaners likewise. And the money no longer comes in.
The credit crunch and the weak pound are to blame and the Spanish, whose economy is hard hit by the worldwide recession, miss the Brits. Curiously, they blame themselves for the missing visitors. Tourism executives in the Canary Islands have asked taxi drivers, hotel receptionists and shopkeepers to attend “friendliness” seminars and learn a smattering of comforting English phrases in a bid to shed their “grumpy” image among holidaymakers. They will be taught phrases such as “Make yourself at home” and “Have a nice day”, and will learn “the importance of smiling”.
This policy is as cruel as it is misdirected. The long-suffering Spaniards deserve better than to be subjected to politeness awareness courses, a peculiar form of indoctrination whose parentage is the politically correct theology of gay and racial awareness programmes; and British tourists, who do not themselves possess delicate sensibility or refined manners, would scarcely notice their absence in others.
Last year, drunk and abusive Britons wreaked havoc in Spain. More than 2,000 were arrested and 695 needed hospital treatment. Have a nice day.
Marketing is sometimes unfairly accused of putting surface before substance, of mistaking the sizzle for the sausage. But when it comes to the mechanical recitation of stock phrases, the charge sticks. Years ago, when I first visited the US, the New Yorkers were, to my ears, astonishingly rude and abrupt. Later, when I flew to the West Coast, the contrast could not have been more marked. There were welcoming smiles and “have a nice day” was everywhere heard. It was at first refreshing and only later did I realise it was mechanical and reflexive, as in “you’re welcome” as a response to “thank you”. While politeness costs nothing, it is without value if it is little more than an automated mantra. And I’d rather have no smiles than plastic smiles.
Polite-speak is often counter-productive. How often does the phrase “your call is important to us” provoke not a sense of being valued as a customer but a hog-whimpering, artery-bursting rage? And when I hear “hello, my name is Nicola, how may I help you?” I picture, perhaps unfairly, a yawn revealing a wodge of chewing gum.
Some people are bonhomous by nature, others are not, and it is the peculiar gift of humans to distinguish instinctively between the sincere and insincere, the genuine and the feigned. Those poor Spaniards, who have little to smile about, would be well advised simply to be themselves. Better to be real and grumpy than false and friendly. And marketers should remember that warmth and friendliness are not learned by rote.