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Jack Smith

Though he doesn't use those nonsensical imperatives, you must not think he wishes that you have a bad day

February 05, 1986|JACK SMITH

Considering that the human race suffers so many grievous affronts and inequities, it is amazing how irritated we can become at one another over a few harmless words.

Many people, for example, are offended by that common phrase of the marketplace, "Have a nice day," and others simply can't stand being told to "Enjoy your lunch."

Logically, of course, both these imperatives are nonsensical, since one can't go out and have a nice day or enjoy one's lunch simply because one has been told to.

When "Have a nice day" first became popular, it annoyed me. I felt that I would have a nice day or not, depending on what befell me in the course of it, and on whether I wanted to have a nice day, and that anyway a nice day would not, as I say, be made more likely by a restaurant cashier's prescribing it.

It seems to me that a simple "Good morning," "Good afternoon," or "Good evening" would serve; but I don't really mind if some young hostess who looks like a cheerleader smiles and tells me to have a nice day.

Dan Musser, who delivers newspapers, telephone books and other publications door to door, is driven into a rage by another seemingly harmless phrase--"Can I help you?"

Musser's reaction to this common question is so violent that it drives him into flights of invective.

He explains that in his business he is obliged to go into people's yards, and that he is often challenged, which he doesn't mind.

"What does offend and perplex me," he says, "is that the gauntlet is always flung down with exactly the same, highly inappropriate phrase: He or she takes a deep breath, draws himself up to full height, and bellows, in the most hostile and unhelpful voice summonable, 'Can I help you?'

"This is absurd," Musser says. He doesn't mind the phrase in department stores, "where it is used as a way of being subtly unpleasant by sales clerks whose feet hurt.

"But it is a bit much when a McDonald's order-taker gazes through me and growls 'Can I help you?' Does the little twerp think I've been waiting in line for Victoria Principal to help me?"

What makes Musser tremble is the use of "Can I help you?" as a territorial challenge.

For example, he was delivering some books to a closed elementary school and was departing when "a fellow who looked as if he might be Lyle Alzado's tougher younger brother" burst out a door and followed him to the gate, shouting what sounded to him like "I'm gonna kill you!"

Musser was terrified; but it turned out the young man was the school security guard, and what he was shouting was "Can I help you!"

Musser's complaint is that "Can I help you?" when delivered by someone who is guarding a territory is not an offer of help at all, but a threat.

He recalls another adventure in which a woman backed her car up to him when he was delivering telephone books, came to a screeching halt, opened her door, leaped out and shouted, "Can I help you?!"

But what she was really saying, he realized, was "You mind your Ps and Qs on this block, Buster, as long as I'm on the Neighborhood Watch committee!"

I must say I am often glad to hear the phrase, "Can I help you?"--especially when I'm trying to buy something in a store and can't find a clerk who isn't busy or on the phone.

"Can I help you?" even when delivered in a tone of wary suspicion, with the implication that the person asking is about to buzz for the fuzz, is a welcome start toward completing one's purchase.

But I know what Musser means, too, about the intimidating edge the question can have when there is the least bit of suspicion that one is not where one is supposed to be, or that one threatens the security of the establishment and especially its hierarchy.

You have never been asked "Can I help you?" until you've been asked it by a Secret Service agent, or an FBI man, or by some secretary in an outer office who is guarding her boss with all the suspicion and hostility she can put into a single phrase.

When these people ask "Can I help you?" what they mean is "You'd better have some identification, pal, and a good reason for being here. Otherwise you proceed over my dead body."

Even so, it has the form at least of a civil question, and I can think of a lot of meaner things security guards could say in its place.

I remember trying once, as a reporter, to get to then Vice President Nixon's door in the Ambassador Hotel. A man I took to be a Secret Service agent blocked my way in the corridor and said, simply, "Move it."

He meant for me to turn around and go back the way I had come, which is exactly what I did.

It would have been a lot more courteous of him, it seems to me, if he'd first said, "Can I help you?" and then when I told him what I wanted, said, "Move it."

But Musser is right in saying that "clearly this inane and hypocritical vehicle of confrontation ought to be replaced." His own solution would be to substitute military commands: "Halt!"or "Who goes there?" And, if all is well, "Dismissed!"

Or "Have a nice day."

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