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Let’s take a moment to look out of the window. What’s the view? Are you sitting street side at a lovely café reading this with the appropriate accompaniments – a pack of Parisiennes, a worn linen notebook, a Harris Tweed blazer with suede patches, a super chunky scarf tied in a complicated knot (for the sake of illustration I’m assuming you’re reading this somewhere autumnal) and a beagle kitted out in a little tartan jacket? To complete the picture, are you in Vienna? Trieste? Munich? Are trams rumbling past, people going about their Saturday morning routines and shopkeepers preparing for a day of trade?
My view is from a train window. I’m speeding southbound from Zürich to Milan and the weather is changing every five minutes – low clouds hugging high valleys, wind-lashed lakes that are a deep navy with gurgling white caps, sunny meadows ringed by trees in fiery tones of orange and electric yellow, and eerie-looking villages tucked away under duvets of fog. Given the particular stretch of Europe I’m hurtling through, there are churches everywhere – slopeside and lakeside, along lonely roads and at the heart of busy market squares. This being Switzerland, all are well maintained, whether they’re four centuries old or angular, modernist structures built in the 1960s.
As the waiter from the dining car next door arrives with a tray of coffees, I wonder how often the Church reviews its property portfolio (granted not all the steeples I’m passing belong to Rome but given that I’m travelling through the heart of Ticino it’s safe to assume the vast majority do). How busy are these churches’ Sunday services? Are they doing a brisk trade in weddings in May? What about christening ceremonies? Is anyone thinking about whether all of these structures could be put to better use?
As I pay the well-groomed gentleman who’s manning the restaurant car, I can’t help thinking of the importance of first impressions, staff uniforms and appearances. This chap’s perfectly ironed shirt, trim waistcoat, sharp moustache and haircut, and warm manner all go a long way to making a ho-hum rail journey that little bit more enjoyable. His sunny personality suggests he clearly enjoys his job and his focus on personal presentation also suggests that he takes pride in his post.
How different from earlier in the week, when I paid a visit to a North American company in the business of flying millions of people around and was greeted at its reception by a young woman tucking into a bowl of Cheerios. For a business that relies on first and lasting impressions, and clearly has guidelines for its frontline crew, all that hard work was shattered by a young woman with milk dribbling down her chin, clinking metal on porcelain and slurping between phone calls. Later that same day I paid a visit to a large and well-respected financial services company and was greeted by a receptionist who was tucking into lunch while greeting partners and clients – this time, the Cheerios had been swapped for a heaped bowl of black beans with dollops of sour cream.
Aside from the fact that her meal made the lobby smell like a taco stand, it did little for the image of a bank that is supposed to pride itself on attention to detail, customer service and immaculate management.
A day later, while trying to organise a cocktail party, I reminded my colleagues to keep appearance and grooming in mind when talking to the catering company. “You do know you’re not allowed to make any comments or requests about appearance or grooming any more,” a colleague reminded me. “It’s all seen as discriminatory.”
I paused for a moment and suggested that it was absolutely unacceptable for someone to be running a catering company and not care about the type of staff they send to events. “We’re just supposed to accept whatever person they send through the door? Then what about choosing menus or deciding on wine? We might as well just put up with what they send in case we’re seen as anti-Canadian for choosing a Kiwi Chardonnay or racist for opting for Thai salad instead of Turkish. Ridiculous!”
Which brings me back to the underused churches. With a bit of high-speed connectivity, all those confessional cubicles could soon be turned into special interview boxes that the Church could rent out to prospective employees and recruitment agencies – as it will no doubt soon be forbidden to conduct job interviews face to face because appearances and grooming might cloud our better judgment as employers. Indeed, in the future, all interviews might well help happen remotely – voice scramblers included. After all, why on earth would you want a receptionist with a pleasant accent – particularly if she has a mouthful of Cheerios?
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule
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