Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cafes aren't for kids

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, September 13.)

THERE ARE some things that just don’t belong together: Coke with single malt whisky; tomato sauce with paté (though that didn’t stop my father); the Mongrel Mob and Black Power. I could go on, but you get my drift.

To that list I would add children and cafés. I like children – I’m told I was once one myself – and I usually enjoy cafés, but the two are generally not compatible.

First, being dragged to a café is cruel to kids. They'd rather be in a playground or at McDonald's. No token collection of toys in the corner can alter the fact that cafés are places for grown-ups, and I feel sorry for small children who are expected to amuse themselves for hours while their parents chatter and slurp their double-shot soy lattes.

Second, taking kids to cafés can be inconsiderate to adult patrons who go there to enjoy conversation or read quietly – experiences that are not enhanced by children noisily racing around, especially given the fashion for minimalist décor that amplifies sound.

A recent lunch with a friend in an eastern suburbs café – one we had chosen because of its reputation as a place that takes food seriously – was marred by small kids running amok. Their mothers appeared oblivious to the racket they were making.

Parents who insist on taking their children to cafes are being selfish, both to the kids and to fellow patrons. The children are either going to be bored or make nuisances of themselves.

Café-addicted parents should accept that having children requires a modification of one’s former lifestyle – and if that means having to cut out Sunday brunch or long lunches with the mothers’ group, so be it.

* * *

IT’S DISPIRITING when journalists are complicit in the debasement of their own language.

Take the word “offshore”. Until recently it was a useful term that could be applied to anything not too distant from land, as the word implies.

An offshore island was one you could sail to for the weekend. Ships anchored offshore while they waited for a berth. Offshore drilling rigs were often within sight of land.

My dictionaries are in accord on this. The first definition they give is “situated in or on the sea, not far from the coast”, or “some distance from the shore”. The coast or shore is the reference point.

If you wanted to refer to something that was much further away – beyond the horizon and perhaps taking several hours to reach by plane, you used the word “abroad” or, more commonly, “overseas”, since to get to any other country from New Zealand requires a trip across water.

Put another way, Kapiti Island is offshore but Britain is overseas. Perfectly simple and eminently logical.

But in one of those quirks of English usage that creep up on us by stealth, “offshore” is now treated as a synonym for “overseas”. In fact it’s well on its way to monstering “overseas” out of the language altogether.

So where we previously had two perfectly good words with specific meanings, we now have one that has become ambiguous and misleading, and another that is falling out of use.

As with so many linguistic abominations, we can thank the business sector. “Offshore” was originally embraced by accountants and tax lawyers – no respecters of language – as a term meaning any country beyond the reach of tax gatherers and legislators, as in “offshore tax haven”

Had its usage been confined to the business world, there would be no cause for complaint. “Offshore” could have harmlessly taken its place amid all the other flatulent jargon favoured by the suits.

But no, the word has spread into general usage. And the worst thing is that this viral contamination has largely been facilitated by journalists, who should regard it as their professional obligation to protect the integrity and accuracy of the language.

* * *

DONOR fatigue is what happens when people get so many requests for charitable donations that they switch off and put their chequebooks away.

Charities have themselves to blame for this, at least in part, and here’s why.

You make a donation and provide your name and address so that you can be sent a receipt for tax purposes. But most charities seem to take this as a commitment on your part to support them in perpetuity and, thereafter, regularly bombard you with appeals for more money.

There are only so many worthy causes people can support. Most have a few favoured charities that they give to year after year. This doesn’t stop them from making occasional donations to other causes but once they do, they can expect to be on the mailing list for years. I wonder how many soon get donation-shy as a result.

As I write this I have a pile of requests on my desk from organisations that I have given a one-off donation to but don’t wish to go on supporting year after year. Quite apart from anything else, it’s a huge waste of paper.

FOOTNOTE: When I last checked, my comments about children in cafes had attracted 187 responses on the Stuff website. Initially they were unremittingly hostile but more recently the tide seems to have turned slightly in my favour.


Amy said...

I'm offended that your piece about children and cafes managed to get published. You suggest that McDonalds is a suitable alternative place for children who ruin cafes for you. You are forgetting that some parents want their children to eat healthier food than what is supplied at McDonalds, and that is were cafes come into play. Parents aren't all being cruel in dragging children to cafes, they are taking them there to eat and spend time with them. Why do you have more right than a family to go to a cafe? They provide the same amount of custom, if not more and sure, some (note: not all) children can be noisy, but so can anyone. Business men and women crowd out cafes and take loud cellphone calls but their presence isn't questioned. It is pathetic to think that you can't handle a children, fellow citizens, in cafes.

Karl du Fresne said...

Fancy someone having the temerity to publish something you don't like. There should be a law against it.