There’s a Pret quite close to Baker Street tube station and I often pop in there when I go to London for one of my regular visits to Howarth’s. It’s a handy place to grab a cup of tea, and the tea’s not bad either – it’s hot and plentiful, and that’s what you want, really, isn’t it?

But the wording on their napkins really annoys me, and so you can also appreciate its hypocritical humbuggery, here it is in full:

This napkin is 100% recyclable (Pret’s sustainability department is militant, we’re making headway). If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don’t need or want) please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not.

…and this is piously followed by the recyclable symbol.


But, you know, what’s all this? Give staff the evil eye? Would this be the same staff who are on their feet all sodding day, who are probably on minimum wage (£6.50 per hour in 2014), who no doubt have to deal with plenty of rudeness and bad behaviour from the Gen Pub already? Yup, that’s them. And no doubt it was a hugely overpaid consultant who penned those very words we see printed on every napkin, words which grant carte blanche to Pret’s customers to bully those behind the counter – barista staff who have to work for the best part of half an hour before they have earned enough money to buy one of the overpriced coffees they serve.

And you just know, don’t you, that some sanctimonious more-organic-than-thou twat is actually going to take up this offer. Brendan O’Neill, writing for The Guardian, was present when precisely such an event took place:

I actually once witnessed a woman following this advice. She gave a Pret worker a piece of her mind after he handed her two napkins instead of one, presumably by accident. “I only need one,” she said sternly, and loudly enough so that the 27 groggy-eyed people queuing for their morning coffee could hear her, too, the smug cow.

I can only say that I wish I’d been there too. I would have reminded her – loudly, of course – that good manners cost nothing. You can read all of O’Neill’s nicely tart piece here, but it’s probably best if you don’t look at the comments that follow. It’s a thread that’s just as depressing and dispiriting as these things usually are.

One thing O’Neill doesn’t mention is the shift from ‘serviette’ to ‘napkin’. To recap, the wording is: ‘If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins’; so, the staff hand out serviettes, but the customers take napkins. I thought I’d investigate by having a quick look at Debrett’s online, and sure enough, Debrett’s is firmly against ‘serviette’:

if you are anxious to pass muster in more class-aware environments you should remember the basics: loo or lavatory never toilet; sofa never settee; napkin never serviette; supper never tea; drawing room or sitting room, never lounge or front room.

(See more here – if you can bear it. There’s a point at which it stops being amusing, and that point comes when you start thinking about people being forced to use food banks while the kind of toffs who care about the sort of crap on this website are swilling champagne.)

But, revenons à nos moutons. Pret want to convince you of their love of all things organic and wholesome and healthy, and so you can join them in their fight to save the planet, they ask that you berate their staff for the terrible crime of handing out more napkins/serviettes/whatever than is absolutely necessary. And the insinuation in the shift from serviette to napkin is that it’s perfectly alright for you to do so, because the staff are of a lower social class than you. You are the Napkin. They are the Serviettes.

So there you have it. Pret A Manger: fighting to change the world for the better, in spite of their lower-class employees! And – as O’Neill points out – 33% owned by McDonald’s.

2 thoughts on “Napkin versus serviette: class wars in Pret A Manger

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