Convenience and courtesy

Gene Buckley writes to grouse about this message from the Linguistic Society of America:

XXX has applied for a 2009 LSA Institute Fellowship and has provided your name as a recommender.  For your convenience, we are only accepting applications online.

How is this limitation on the means of response for our convenience? I suppose that the person who wrote this felt that a straightforward “we are only accepting applications online” would have been too blunt, so that something needed to be added for the sake of politeness. There are several options — “we are able to accept only online applications”, for instance — but the writer fell back on a formula that is widely used to preface announcements that might be unwelcome to the recipient.

It’s first cousin to “courtesy call” used of telemarketers’ sales calls.

Now, “for your convenience” has plenty of uncomplex, literal uses (“open seven days a week for your convenience”, “a stamped addressed envelope is enclosed for your convenience”), and “courtesy call” still can be used for a diplomatic ritual (and similar visits in other contexts) but their euphemistic, faux-polite uses are common enough so that they serve as warning flags. It’s easy to find complaints about them.

Here, for instance, is one from a writing blog:

I recently received a missive from my bank, notifying me about changes to my account that have been introduced “for my convenience.”

As I read through the 10-page glossy leaflet that accompanied the 2-page letter, I pondered what my bank could be doing for me.

Opening another branch to replace the one they closed in my suburb? Adding a couple of extra tellers to the one branch that now serves the entire district so we don’t have to wait in queues for so long? Reducing the fees and charges on my accounts?

No, dear reader. Alas and alack, it was none of the above. Do you know what my bank was doing “for my convenience?” Allow me to quote, “At Bank X, our goal is to keep fees at a level which, whilst as low as possible, still allows us to provide our exceptional personal service to you, our merchant customers.

“In order to maintain an excellent service for all our merchant customers, the Bank will introduce a minimum monthly charge of $X, which may affect a small number of merchant customers.”

And from Shana Alexander’s The Feminine Eye (1970), p. 90:

Travelers in America should learn automatically to mistrust those three little words, “for your convenience.”

As for the telephonic “courtesy call”, complaints abound, as on the Netlingo site:

A “courtesy call” previously was seen as a polite phone call meant to welcome someone to the neighborhood or to thank someone for their valued business. However, now-a-days with so many telemarketers calling home phone lines and starting off with, “Good evening, Mr. Smith, this is a courtesy call from __”, these calls are seen more as a disturbance than a nice gesture.

Both usages seem to be primarily American. I don’t know much about their histories, but if Alexander was warning about “for your convenience” back in 1970, this one at least has been around for a while. Telephonic “courtesy call” isn’t in the OED at the moment; the dictionary has only the ‘courtesy visit’ sense.

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