The Truth in Strange Places

I have a confession to make.

Perhaps not a confession of the kind of titillating misdemeanour or behavioural idiosyncrasy that our glorious media may have led you to expect from public confessions... So don’t expect to see the pictures of me cavorting along an Italian beach naked as a tomato at the age of 3. And as for the letters that reveal that I had a girlfriend thirty years before I was married and that we once held hands, well, the girl in question won’t even admit she ever knew me, never mind sell the letters to The Sun... No, this confession may expose me to greater ignominy...

I’ve started to develop a cordial relationship with an estate agent.

 We might turn into good friends - we might not - it’s early days. But he knows that I used to work in advertising and he doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe that’s because it’s nice for an estate agent to talk to someone who makes them feel good about their job.

Dean, and that’s his real name, which he’s allowed me to use so I can protect him and his family from being confused with all these other estate agents... Dean has recently introduced a highly innovative strategy in his company. He’s decided to tell customers the truth.

It’s not simply that he’s decided to cut out the hyperbolic puffery of house-selling copy. ‘Seasonally overgrown garden’ will no longer be the euphemism to describe an oak forest planted 3 years before the compilation of the Doomsday Book. No, no, it goes deeper than that. He’s decided to tell customers the truth.

It was not, as you can imagine, an easy decision. It was spawned in the unlikely context of a one-day time-management course. You can’t be too careful what you expose yourself to these days - you think you’re paying £450 a day to learn how to develop lists of tasks and assign them the letters ‘a’ ‘b’ or ‘c’ and suddenly you find yourself reflecting on life, the universe and your higher purposes. What, Dean was asked to contemplate, would be the unifying principles of his company - apart from making a great deal of money? Honesty, he decided, would be one.

Returning to planet earth somewhere in the vicinity of Harrow, Dean – who is not a churchgoer –convened a meeting of his key people and dropped thebombshell. Almost all of them said, ‘We can’t do that. We’ll never sell another house.’ They had a point. So they decided that they would go through every instance in an estate agent’s life when there’s a temptation to lie. After ordering eighty gallons of coffee, and informing their spouses, friends and relatives that they would be unreachable until the fourth millennium, they set to.

Suppose, for example,  you’re trying to sell a house and the prospective buyer is teetering on the edge of a decision. In the past, the agent might say: ‘We’re showing someone else the house tomorrow morning so it might be good to think about making a quick offer.’ In reality, no one has shown any interest in the house at all but, hey, speed of turn-over is critical to cash-flow and the development of a strong selling reputation. But did they need to lie to make the point? How about this? ‘Of course, someone else might make an offer at any time.’ Incontrovertibly true, even if somewhat optimistic. Well, perhaps you might still find that a little too close to manipulation to be comfortable but it’s certainly progress. Or take the situation when a seller calls up and asks: ‘Have you had any interest in the property yet?’ ‘No,’ is the truthful response but estate agents are very keen to retain sole agent status and even keener that their clients do not to move their properties to other agents. So the answer might well have been: ‘Yes, a number of people have picked up particulars.’ But now the

Clean Dean Team might respond: ‘No. Not as yet. The market is slow right now and there are a number of similar properties in better locations. When they’ve been sold, interest should pick up.’

And so it goes on. Many of Dean’s team actually thought that he expected them to lie, that it was part of the job. Now here they were working away to see if they could tell the truth and sell. And they feel that they’re succeeding.  What’s perhaps more interesting is that the team reported a significant reduction in stress levels. Makes sense really. No one is spending anytime figuring out how to flannel someone with an untruth.  No one is trying to remember what they said last time. No one is building an artificial wall of sly untruth between themselves and another person. No one is worried about meeting a former client in a dark alley.

How the truth sets you free.

Whether Dean and his merry men will continue to make money is an interesting question, but if the ‘S’ reg Jag has to go back at least Dean will be able to look at his reflection in its shiny black bonnet and wave it goodbye with a clear conscience.

What are the prevalent, apparently necessary white lies in your business sector? And are they really necessary?

We live in a culture of untruth, of ‘spin’. We live in a culture where you can start a business to provide alibis for cheating spouses and make a load of lucre, where taxi-drivers offer passengers blank receipts so they can claim back whatever amount they choose, where bosses tellsecretaries to tell people they’re out. Consider for a moment the sentence: ‘I’ll get back to you tomorrow.’ Can you think of anyone you’d genuinely believe could usually be relied upon to deliver on that promise?

We live in a culture where the answers to all of the big questions about life, love and purpose are just a matter of taste and good presentation, so that what counts is not truth but packaging. As Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear put it as he careened earthward: ‘I’m not flying, I’m falling with style.’

Dean is growing wings.

Our culture is falling. And not even very stylishly.

 Mark Greene to read more of Mark's writing please visit www.licc.org.uk