The Language of Banks.

I’m not one of those people who hates his bank. But there is one thing about them that really irritates me; it’s the way they talk to me. 

 I was fortunate enough to once be involved in the launch of a purely online bank called 20twenty. The bank sadly folded, thanks to Saambou’s collapse, but not before I got to work with the London-based team of Standard Chartered Bank, the company that ultimately tried to keep 20twenty afloat. I recall a conversation in which one of the Standard Chartered team spoke about South African’s seeming-tolerance of appalling banking behaviour. He explained it like this: there are basically two types of relationships between banks and their customers. The one arrangement is when customers borrow money from banks. This agreement is all too familiar to all of us who have bought houses and cars using money we don’t currently have, but the banks do. And we pay dearly for that loan. The other arrangement is one we don’t think of that often. It’s when banks borrow money from us, and they do that every month when we deposit our salary cheques into our accounts. We are essentially loaning our money to them, but will of course slowly take it back as the month progresses. They generally pay us less dearly for that loan.

 For some reason however, the South African customer behaves like banks are doing them a huge favour by looking after their money and banks generally seem to welcome this misguided gratefulness. They take on this almost patriarchal role as the caretaker of your money, giving it back to you only with their permission. In reality however, banks are desperate for your hard cash. They need it to stay afloat, and indeed, finance the many other arrangements they have with people borrowing money from them. Without your monthly loan to them, they simply won’t be able to function. And here’s where I get offended.

 When I need to take back the money I’ve loaned them, I don’t expect a massive show of gratitude, but I do expect language that fairly reflects the nature of this particular relationship. I request the money and punch in my PIN code. Instead of a simple THANK YOU, the ATM says APPROVED before dispensing it. That word APPROVED suggests that they’ve considered my request and generously decided to grant it, even though it is my money. APPROVED would be the more appropriate word if I was asking for a loan. The bank might say this is semantics, but in my world semantics is everything. Semantics is the difference between Hemingway and Dan Brown. Why try and assert your authority over me at this moment? And they do it again when you pay with your Card. The devise asks for your PIN code. You punch it in and presumably the computers behind the scene checks whether it’s right. It then answers CORRECT. Well, yes, of course it’s correct. It’s my PIN code. I wasn’t exactly guessing. CORRECT is the word that would only seem right to someone who was taking a flyer at it. CORRECT is the word that suggests you’ve given me a little challenge, and I passed with flying colours. CORRECT is the word you use when you’ve approached it with the mindset that criminals are more likely to be using my card than I am. And by all means, if a criminal does and gets my PIN wrong, INCORRECT would be entirely the right word to use. But its not, it’s me, and again a simple THANK YOU would do the job and have the same confirmation effect.

 THANK YOU would remind me that you’re grateful for the loan. THANK YOU would remind me that you’re pleased to have me as a customer. THANK YOU would remind me that you have manners. THANK YOU would evoke an image of you smiling at me, your customer. THANK YOU would suggest there are humans in your banks, not computers. And if anyone in the banking business reads this and takes note, I simply say Thank you.




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