Don’t Say “Guest” When You Don’t Mean Guest

For some reason, businesspeople tend to drift toward gibberish in their speech. (And you’re all businesspeople, by the way, even those of you who believe that “businesses” do something different from what nonprofits do.)

In the search for something interesting, different and effective to say, people try a lot of things. Many of those things are nonsensical. Some of the nonsensical things sound good, and sometimes when they sound good people start copying that nice-sounding bit of nonsense. Eventually, people take it seriously, even though it’s nonsense. Don’t worry, though, because eventually when this happens, the original word or phrase becomes so common that it stops meaning anything at all. “Guilt-free” as a way of describing a menu item is an example of pure gibberish that eventually just faded into meaninglessness.

And other times, someone says something that’s not entirely gibberish. It might even be pretty smart, but because it’s smart and makes sense, it keeps getting used until it becomes, you guessed it, gibberish.

For example, 20 or 30 years ago, IBM realized that their future success would come not from mostly selling computers, but from selling the consulting services to help their big customers get the most out of all that equipment they were buying from Big Blue. Though they may not have been the first to say this, they popularized the saying, “We don’t sell products. We sell solutions.” The point was to say that it’s not the product that’s important; it’s the fact that we solve a problem you have.

Flash forward 10 or 15 years from that, and everyone, everyone, everyone in the commercial software business was selling “solutions.” But they didn’t quite mean it the way IBM did. “Solution” had simply become a synonym for “product.” You would hear people say things like, “Our solution is superior to our competitors’ solutions because it has 10 times the processor speed of theirs.”

The original idea behind using the word “solution” completely fell away, and it became gibberish. But here’s the one that I want to mention to you today: guest.

In the past, hotels had guests. Restaurants didn’t have guests; department stores didn’t have guests; coffee shops didn’t have guests; airlines didn’t have guests. But now, of course, they all do.

How did this happen? In the ’80s and ’90s, America was being challenged economically by Japan. Anything and everything Japanese companies did was held up as a model for American companies to follow, and many of those practices were really worthwhile and valuable. This includes the way that Japanese companies do service, which is extraordinary.

Someone noticed that the Japanese word for “customer” (kyaku, or with the honorific, o-kyaku or o-kyakusan) is the same word as the word you’d use to describe someone who was staying at your home. In other words, in the Japanese language if you said, “I had a big meeting with an important customer today” and “I have a guest staying with me,” you’d use the same exact word in each instance.

This was seen as a clue to the mindset that leads to great service: You treat your customers as though they were guests in your home. Thus, the logic goes, if we change the word we use, from the crass and inelegant “customer” to “guest,” we might begin to see them as more important.

In principle, I have no problem with using little mental frame-changers like this, but the trajectory of this one has been ultimately to replace the word “customer” (or whatever) for “guest.” When the cashier at the coffee shop finishes your transaction and shouts, “Can I help the next guest?” it’s not hard to see that the usefulness of this change — if there was any to begin with — has run out.

In fact, I believe this has reached the gibberish stage: If an airline tells me one more time I’m their “guest,” I might remind them that I’m not spending the night; I’m just flying somewhere. I’m their “passenger,” not their “guest.” That word, actually, is quite important. It reminds them that their No. 1 job is to get me in safety and comfort from someplace to some other place. It’s not about them and their hospitality; it’s about where I need to go. “Guest” for an airline is the wrong word, taking them down the wrong path.

Likewise, people who come to live events are not your “guests.” You should extend hospitality to them, surely, but “guest” is the wrong word. Fan, patron, supporter, subscriber, member, collaborator, audience. Take your pick or make up another one, but pick based on meaning, not on what sounds vaguely flattering. “Guest,” for live entertainment, is generally the wrong word, and is nice-sounding gibberish.

“Guest” has entered the meaningless stage of its transition. It’s no better than “customer” in most cases, and I actually like “customer” better for most businesses because it implies an important obligation of the business to deliver value to the person paying the bills. Is that too crass for the highfalutin world of high-end casual dining or $3-a-cup coffee shops? I think not.

So get over it, people. Don’t use an empty word when meaningful and specific words are available. I’ve been a “guest” in both senses many times in Japan, and the connection implied by using the same word for both exists. But the roots of that connection run very, very deep and come from the core of Japanese culture itself. It’s not a simple trick of language.

Speaking of which, service in Japan is excellent, but if the word choice is to be taken as so revealing, here’s another Japanese vocabulary word for you: sabisu.  It means “service.” It’s borrowed from American English and sounds just like the English word “service.”

See. We had the right vocabulary for this all along.

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