I have long been interested in the effects that language has on our perceptions of a situation.
Cognitive linguistics, its called and I confess to being an amateur spectator on this in landlord-tenant terms.
How renting came about
The British renting system goes right back to William the Conqueror and mediaeval, French feudal systems.
Under this system, all of the land in the UK is owned by the crown, below which is the granting of various estates, or interests in land, among which freeholds and tenancies are but a part.
This feudal system is where the common language used in rental agreements comes from and where the twin terms, Landlord and tenant are derived.
But thinking linguistically
Many people I meet, are none too comfortable with the standard terms.
Such as ‘Tenant’, precisely because of its feudal connotations in a time where a purse full of Groats and a flagon of Mead have been replaced by online banking and Vodka with gold leaf in it.
I have noticed in very recent times, that even newspapers tend to use the term “Renters” these days, as opposed to other descriptors.
This is more legally accurate because there are different types of security of tenure conferred on people paying rent for a property. Not everybody is a tenant, so ‘Renters’ seems a very apposite term, precisely because of its wider definition.
Speaking from experience
Three years ago I did a consultancy job for a local authority social lettings agency, who were opening up a high street shop in their district.
I submitted my report but was asked to amend a few bits, notably where I had used the word “competition”, because that very word had the potential to upset members, voting on a strategy, who were more used to the traditional language of a not for profit sector and who might be uncomfortable with business language.
So is it ‘consumer’ or ‘customer’?
I was reminded of these distinctions this week when helping to compile a bid for funding for a project where we hotly debated whether or not to use the term “consumer” when referring to renters.
Due to my own history working in the not for profit sector I found myself automatically shifting uncomfortably in my seat at the term “consumer”.
I have long hated the local authority fashion of referring to homeless people as “customers”, suggesting that if they don’t like what Camden council are telling them, they can go to IKEA????? Customers my arse.
The word “customer” implies a sense of choice, which homeless people don’t have.
Same as ‘affordable rent’. Who dreamt that one up? A rent level that is 80% of the market rent is suddenly affordable?
Housing is awash with BS political linguistics.
But back to Consumers
It actually has a legal precedence.
Up until very recently, tenants weren’t covered by consumer laws but now they are. Landlords and agents are counted as traders and renters as consumers, with comparative legal rights to people buying a washing machine that doesn’t work.
The law is about to recognise that renters have no contractual role in the activities of letting agents, such contractual obligations being solely between the landlord (principal) and their agent, hence the coming of banning fees charged to tenants.
Under consumer law, a renter who has been mis-sold their accommodation can now back out of a fixed term tenancy, known as “unwinding a tenancy”, in a way that they couldn’t before, simply because, instead of being tied into William the Conqueror style legislation as a vassal or serf, they are now regarded as consumers, with more rights than Windy Miller once had.
If we think of tenancy rights in terms of consumer legislation, where will that take our thinking and behaviours, as against a system of medieval renting law and hierarchies of land ownership?
Are ‘consumers’ more empowered?
As consumers – aren’t renters more empowered than they would be as subordinates to an owner of land, based on a descending system of allodial ownership, owners in fee simple, leasehold owner etc?
Re-Defining tenants as consumers may smack of QVC shopping Channels but in real terms, does it not also smack of a break out from a centuries-old feudal system, based on class, power and privilege, and shouldn’t we embrace that?
Might changing the language also gradually change how many landlords and tenants feel about each other? The resentments that are subtly underpinned by a feudal language that is no longer appropriate.
One landlord I spoke to said to me:-
“I don’t own any land and I’m nobody’s lord”
and I get that and many tenants have an inbuilt dislike of the notion that somebody else owns their home and could turf them out of it if they have done nothing wrong.
Is it possible that some tenants may be less inclined to not pay their rent if they didn’t have an unconscious mental picture of their Land –“LORD”, using their rent money to put Venison on the table, while they chuck stray bones to the dogs laying in the Baronial hearth, before wiping grease off their face with their leather cuff and grabbing a passing serving wench?
In my experience
In my years of negotiations between parties, I hear both views expressed and am convinced that entrenched attitudes are supported by the legal language used to describe what is going on.
The Northern Ireland peace deal was finally achieved after years of very careful attention being paid to the words used in the agreement. It really is that important.
So, in the comments column of our funding application, I have written:-
“Lets go with ‘Consumers’ and hang the consequences”.