One significant creative revolution in the workplace over the last decade has been the relentless advance of what's called "tone of voice". Led by brand-focused colleagues, employees are implored to word all their communications with corporate guidelines in mind, so as to reinforce core values in all forms of stakeholder engagement. In worst case scenarios personnel may also be invited to enrol in a day of Tone of Voice training, where minions read from scripts imploring the adoption of transparently on-brand phrasing going forward. I am well glad to be out of that.
London's online media outlets invariably embrace a characteristic tone of voice. Often that tone of voice is chirpy and concise, especially in puff pieces promoting goods and services, with excitable language and a very positive slant. Here's an example.
"Who needs the bare necessities when there are giant ‘Jungle Book’ cakes in the world? That’s right: a huge Kipling (Rudyard, not Mr)-inspired cake will be on display at The Mall in Walthamstow this weekend, featuring all the iconic characters in sponge form."
I like to call this tone of voice Evangelical Consumerism. Its practitioners pen upbeat hymns of praise for the purchasable experience, affirming the creed that Anything You Can Buy Is Exciting. It may be crass hype, but it's precisely what you'd expect to see in pseudo-advertorial, so nothing out of the ordinary.
"If you were having palpitations a week or so ago when the supermarkets were struck by a houmous shortage (#middleclassproblems), you can make up for lost time this weekend. Because Saturday May 13 is ‘International Hummus Day’, a worldwide celebration of chickpeas smushed to perfection."
But more recently I've noticed a new tone of voice that sets my teeth on edge, in which the author pretends to be one of the readership, and lays down a definitive seemingly-shared point of view. Here's an example.
"Labouring the point perhaps, but London LOVES gin. This is a given. It’s classy, complex and, given the inevitable slosh of tonic mixer, medicinal. It’s basically good for you, and come summer we’ll be drinking it daily."
A key signifier of this new approach is use of the word "we", as in "we all think this don't, we?"
"Hands up if you're a 'bit of a foodie'? You? All of you? Wonderful. Well, that means you're as excited about the opening of Highbury's Westerns Laundry as we are (and yes, it used to be a laundrette)."
I've decided to call this tone of voice Sidekick Empathy. Sadly there's a lot of it about.
"So we love a retro Rice Crispies fix in the morning. But rice brunch? That’s a new one on us."
"It’s no secret that mobile internet coverage in London can be shocking. We’ve all had to hang out of our bedroom window or walk down the street to try and pick up 4G at some point, right?"
"You know what most yoga classes are missing? Beer. Yeah, you heard me. You might expect to round off your yoga class with a green smoothie or vegan energy ball, but that’s all about to change thanks to the arrival of beer yoga in London."
Pretending to be one of the 'in' crowd plays well with a resonant audience, inspiring readers with the stated lifestyle choice to think "yes, that's exactly what I think, so what should I be buying?"
It’s an age-old quandary: you want to down a bottle’s worth of Berlusconi’s tears (that’s prosecco, FYI) to yourself, but you’re damned if you’re sloshing back that many calories in half an hour with summer just around the corner.
But Sidekick Empathy is also a risky strategy, simultaneously excluding those with alternative viewpoints, and potentially turning off as many as it turns on.
"Love stuffing your face with fried chicken? Of course you do. Want to win a year’s worth of the good stuff from the team behind five-star-rated rulers of the roost Chick ‘n’ Sours? YUH-HUH!"
Food and drink stories are often given the Sidekick Empathy treatment, because they're marketing's bread and butter these days. But other aspects of modern life also get a look in, as the creepy journalist again claims to know exactly what you're thinking.
"Remember when the Piccadilly line was in absolute chaos at the end of last year? Yeah, we’re still not over it either."
"Let’s face it, dogs are great. Whether they’re fetching you a stick or begging for a treat, there’s no better companion to spend the day with. But if you’ve ever struggled to find things to do with your canine companion in London, a new dog-friendly guide book is hoping to change that."
I should say that all of these are genuine examples lifted from one particular well-known London-based magazine/website. Moreover they're drawn from a range of their contributors, suggesting that the prevalence of this new tone of voice is no accident.
"Love a kimchi hotdog? Us too! So we've gone and nabbed the kimchi hotdog recipe from flash celeb hangout Le Caprice."
Note how often a question is asked, to which there is a 'correct' answer seemingly shared by all right-thinking folk, and if you have the misfortune to think otherwise you're a loser.
"Pão de Queijo. ‘What’s that?’ I hear you cry. A wheat-free Brazilian cheese bread, duh: a staple snack found across the country, made from cassava flour and cheese, a crunchy outside giving way to a cloud-like interior. Sounds ace, right? Right."
At its worst, Sidekick Empathy can be quintessentially appalling.
"There are few things we enjoy in life more than good, old-fashioned melted cheese, so it was about time we went to visit Grill My Cheese at Leather Lane Market. They're cooking up some seriously gourmet cheesy goodness — you'd brie mad not to try it. Like this (who wouldn't?)?"
Who wouldn't want to slap the smug 'journalist' who penned that particular paragraph? Or employ some other less violent form of rebuke, obviously... and until I added that extra clarification, I was just as guilty myself.
"‘Cut me open,’ you announce dramatically to your gal pals, ‘and I bleed prosecco.’ You may know the ailment well, when the fizz becomes your life force. When you’re all about that bubble. Once you’ve popped, you literally can’t stop."
If you genuinely are the person described in the last extract, you have become one of capitalism's victims rather than one of its successes. Ditto the home delivery addict described here.
"You know the scene: it’s 1am, and your ‘I’ll just have one’ post-work drink has beautifully snowballed into a full-on, ‘back at ours’ paaaarrrrrrtaaaay. But there’s one thing standing between you and your night of hedonism: you’ve made it home only to discover that your flat is dry. There’s not even a dusty bottle of value vodka lurking in the back of the cupboard."
Forewarned, you'll hopefully now be more aware of this emergent tone of voice, and keep your eyes peeled so you don't fall under Sidekick Empathy's devious spell. Because we'd none of us want to be that kind of person, would we...?