Just because Jean-Paul Sartre didn’t actually say ‘hell is other people’ doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The most famous thing that Jean-Paul Sartre never said was: hell is other people. Well, he did sort of say it, in one of his plays, but he didn’t mean it, and the translation from the French didn’t help matters. He was thinking more about the way we judge ourselves through the eyes of others.
But just because he didn’t say it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, still less that its implication is not profound. If other people are hellish then we are hellish too, because we are all other people, to other people.
This may sound petty, but one of the things about other people that bugs me the most at the moment is the way they say “at all” at the end of a question, as in “Do you want milk with that, at all?” Or “Is there anything else I can help you with, at all”. And if the conversation is with a stranger on the phone who keeps addressing me by my first name, then my hell is complete.
When it comes to the spoken word, we all have these private hells, it seems. My colleague Damian Thompson mentioned his in his Daily Telegraph column the other day – receptionists who say: “Can you just fill in this form for me” – and it has produced a number of letters on the subject.
Peter Horwood of East Sussex, for example, wrote that he had counted six “for me” edicts being issued by the teller at his bank. What is wrong with “please”? he asked. While Keith Baker of Worthing noted that many sales assistants greet customers by saying “Are you all right there?”, rather than “Can I help you?”
But it was a letter from one Nobby Kerton from Yeovil in Somerset that made me think of the Jean-Paul Sartre quote. When he hears: “He is tied up at the moment” and “Bear with me”, he replies: “Please ask him to ring me back when you have untied him”, and “No, I am a happily married man”.
I wonder if Mr Kerton has realised that he is “other people”. Imagine that poor receptionist, who is doing her soul-destroying job for £18,000 a year and having to endure his “witty banter”.
“Bear with me.”
“No, I am a happily married man”.
“Hello? Did you hear me? I said I am a happily married man. Hello?”
His letter has made me listen to myself in the way I pick up on other people’s little foibles. I’m one of those annoying “other people” who can’t stop himself correcting those who say “less” when they mean “fewer”. And I’ve just been reading a fascinating autobiography by an American general who has much wisdom to impart and yet, such is my pettiness, I had to get out my pen and circle the five or so split infinitives I spotted in his book. To what end? Now I come to think of it, I’m pretty sure Americans don’t even care about splitting their infinitives.
It is mainly my children who are on the receiving end, especially when they use “like” to punctuate a sentence. I will say: “Is it like 10 o’clock, or is it 10 o’clock?”
We speech fascists need to get a perspective. We should be more like Andrew Strauss, a true gentleman and a great captain who I hope will make an equally great Tory MP at some point. He always keeps in mind something his wife said to him one day when he was feeling miserable about a cricket score: “Some people have been blown up in Afghanistan. They are the ones who have had a bad day.”