Infantilification of Us All

The verb “pop” comes from the nursery, and its purpose is to put us back there

Counterpoints Family Modern Life Transport

The dictionary defines “infantilism” as “a condition in which infantile behaviour patterns persist”, and “infantilisation” as “the action of prolonging or perpetuating a state of infancy”. So I am looking for another word – “infantilification”, perhaps? – to describe what I encounter on an almost daily basis: the deliberate treatment of adults as if they were infants, either to make them docile, or simply for the sake of being liked.

The prime example in the media used to be the BBC weather forecasters, who for a long time now have adopted a maternal or avuncular style, telling us in tones both anxious and comforting to wrap up well on cold days, and using quasi-nursery language (“spits and spots of rain”). More recently, the style has spread: the BBC’s business editor, Robert Peston (a highly intelligent man and an experienced print journalist), cannot describe the latest technical decision by the Treasury or the Bank of England without putting it into baby language and reciting it as a VERY exciting bed-time story.

But the arch-practitioners of infantilification are to be found in two walks of life: nurses, and air hostesses. Both use the same sing-song voice, and the same universal verb, to “pop”. “I’ll just pop the thermometer in your mouth”, says the nurse; “I’ll just pop your bag in the overhead locker”, says the hostess. The verb comes from the nursery, and its purpose is to put us back there.

On recent flights I have noticed a further refinement: a simple instruction, such as “Could you put up the window-blind, please”, has now become “Could you put up the window-blind for me?” The implication is not that she was about to do it herself, but that she wants you to do it just for her sake, to show how much you desire to please her; the underlying model for this sentence is, therefore, “Could you put your toys away for me?”

Why is this all so grating? The simple and obvious reason is that I am not an infant, and she is not my mother, aunt or nanny; there is a falseness about it which is silly and instantly tiresome. But to falseness one must also add hypocrisy: a way of talking to us that is meant to seem warm and personal is, in reality, nothing more than a managerial technique, and nothing could be less warm than that. And, finally, there is the element of sheer insult: do they really think we would not cooperate if they just asked us politely, speaking as one adult to another?