Tag Archives: capitalism

My Politeness is Not for Sale, and You Couldn’t Afford it, Anyway!: A Customer Service Rant

Customer service is one of the worst social interactions many of us engage in because it’s almost always a sham. And we know it. Knowing how fake the interaction is makes it that much more difficult (for me) to participate in sincerely.* 

In a customer service social interaction, politeness is for sale. Along with the (implied) purchase of a consumer good or a service is a built-in benefit of pleasantness on the part of the service professional. It’s a simple commodity-exchange relationship, but (in the U.S. especially) we expect to sugar-coat that with a false sense of cheer. In a normal social interaction, one not so directly contingent on the exchange of money, politeness is something that is almost earned: if one person in the interaction is polite, the other is more likely to be polite as well. But they are not obligated to be–no one is obligated to be. In contrast, during a customer service interaction, the promised payment of money obligates only the service professional to be polite. That person’s demeanor is being manipulated by money.

MY POLITENESS IS NOT FOR SALE! It SHOULD NOT be for sale! That drains politeness of much of its value, and maybe this is why society is becoming more rude in general. If we’ve commodified everything (see Strasser 2003), turning much of our dealings with strangers into fake social interactions that only obligate one party to be polite, and both parties know this politeness is fake because it’s being bought, then why should anyone value politeness in and of itself? Niceness becomes a perpetual sham, and no one will know how to feel it or genuinely be polite, anymore. A stretch, okay, but I see kids running around acting entitled to everything without even having to act polite or gracious, nevermind actually feel those things. And their parents let them! Is our consumer culture, which hinges on various commodity-exchange relationships like customer service interactions, ultimately to blame for this general slide into rudeness? Look me in the eye when we’re talking and put that goddamn phone away!

My main point is that customer service social interactions make me angry because they are so fake, and because they put a price–albeit unquantified–on the manner in which the service professional engages with a fellow member of society. Except, of course, the service professional is not the consumer’s equal, because the consumer has been taught to feel entitled to the service professional’s robotic smile and fake politeness. The service professional is a slave to capitalism’s social consequences. Their behavior is devoid of free will and instead dictated by the possibility of acquiring capital from the customer.

I say it’s time we called shenanigans, and started treating people well no matter what. Alternately, if you’re a service professional and a customer is rude to you, you should be able–even expected–to be rude in kind if the spirit moves you, because why should you have to take it just because the customer is the one with the money? It’s likely not going into your pocket, anyway, but that of the company you work for. And I feel it’s more important that we teach each other the value of engaging nicely with everyone regardless of their social position within a customer service interaction. Regardless of who holds the money, and where it might be spent.

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*This is why my smart, rude customers will complain about my sarcastic attitude. They don’t appreciate that I’m multitasking by trying to teach them a lesson in how to behave and being metapragmatic by commenting on the fakeness of our social interaction even as we are engaging in it. So I guess they’re really not that smart–or they’d rather focus on how rude I’m being because they think they’re entitled to my smile in spite of their disrespectful attitudes because they’re ostensibly paying to be there. Which is bullshit. My attitude is contingent on yours, not how much money you make in a year, who you are, or how much you’re dropping on this visit to our store. Asshole.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary

Thrift vs Patriotism: The Nationalistic Debate over Olympians’ Clothing

The Olympics may be over, but cultural critique is forever.

Before the start of the Olympic Games in London, there was a bit of a controversy state-side over the uniforms that the U.S. team was going to be wearing to the Opening Ceremonies. Apparently they were made in China. Shocking. The mass media had a field day with this, and politicians weighed in, everyone up in arms about the fact that the uniforms should be made in the United States.

Meanwhile, back in America, this is still a capitalist country that participates in a global marketplace. Of course the uniforms are going to be made in China: it’s cheaper! This made me wonder if, had the uniforms been made in the United States, there would have been a controversy about the expense of outfitting our athletes for the Games. Because you know they would have been pretty darn spendy.

What we have here are coexisting, competing yet related sets of values, ideologies even: the virtue of thrift vs. the virtue of patriotism. At this historical-cultural moment in the United States, the virtue of thrift is tied closely to the recession discourse and the “Jobs” trope people have been hammering for the past year(s). On the other hand, the virtue of patriotism [read: anti-China-ism] mandates that we buy U.S. made goods. This virtue is tied to the Jobs trope and the recession, as well. That hypothetical backlash would have been about excessive spending and anti-American consumer practices that “steal jobs” from hard-working stiffs. So basically, in this climate of competing ideologies, consumers can’t win. They will always be doing something antithetical to mainstream American discourse, which draws upon currently-held beliefs. (Those traitors!) This transcends to the larger scale as well, where Olympic officials can’t win, either. There is no right choice, because either one offends a deep-seated and currently harped-on ideology in America.

So you see, there’s no winning. Or rather, there is a winner, at least rhetorically, and that winner is America. (It’s also the loser, based on my argument, but the discourse will always position itself as drawing attention to how America should be winning. Maybe the real winner is capitalism.) This whole controversy–or rather, both of these controversies, the real and the hypothetical–is wrapped in the always-justifying “virtue” of Nationalism, which is really what the Olympic Games are all about.*

And the coverage of the Games, before, during, and after, is all about drumming up the controversies and human-interest stories that can be squeezed out of the sweaty towels of the competitors and turned into profit. There will always be hand wringing and finger-pointing. Newscasters gotta eat, too. Yay, capitalism!

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*Side-note: In grad school during my Transnational Ritual class, I made the mistake of pointing out that the Olympic Games totally mirrors the hegemonic system of nationalism around which the world is currently organized, man. In response, my professor basically called me childish for not just accepting this as the status quo. (He had a hard-on for the Olympics because it was his “field-site,” and he couldn’t really take any analysis of it that he hadn’t thought of himself, especially not a kommie-Gramscian one. …and I may have aided in his dressing-down of me by sporting pig-tails at the time. But this does not alter the fact that he was still an asshole.)

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Filed under Contemporary, Media

A Question on Appropriate Analytical Tactics

This question came to me during breakfast while watching a morning “news” show. I’d like to think they were doing a segment on consumer advocacy or reports, but it’s just as likely this thought came to me out of the blue:

In a consumer culture such as ours, is a Marxian analysis of the means and mode(s) of production still relevant? When the emphasis is so heavily on the consumer side, is it even useful to think of power in terms of who controls production? Or is the real power more in the hands of the hegemony, which convinces most of us that it is consumption that counts? And in any case, what does it say about our socio-economic system, about the state of things, that our main source of “power”–or at least the source most consciously realized and discussed–is consumptive?

In a sense, that’s not even power at all…although this is where I tend to slip back into Marx (is there a way to avoid it?)…but it’s not “real” power because it’s not just consumer demand that dictates production and makes companies rise and fall–it’s capitalist interest. That elusive yet pervasive “good” that we discursively (and mentally–subconsciously?) glorify yet only understand through well-worn metaphors and (misguided) faith. And it’s marketers who influence consumption patterns, by studying and exploiting them. It’s all related in a convoluted chain of powerful influences in the (ultimate?) service of increasing capital. And we consumers–the identity that all of us are encouraged to wear like a badge of honor–don’t have nearly the power we think we do.

But this does little to answer my original question about the relevance of a Marxian analysis in the face of our overwhelmingly consumerist society, because I just slipped so easily back into Marx up there. Almost too easily…Marx may be useful if only because he helps us dispel the hegemonic myths about the culture in which we live: a Marxian analysis helps us to see the production side of things that tends to be obscured, even as it is vaguely glorified in the “jobs” trope that is so in vogue right now. And of course there is always commodity fetishism, a big part of our consumer culture. But the working class has yet to come to mass consciousness, and I still want something that’s a better fit to describe what’s going on at the consumer level that’s so in the forefront of our national consciousness, while at the same time taking into account what is obscured by this focus on these gargantuan myths of the power of this hegemonically imposed and nearly-universally embraced identity. I want it all revealed and deconstructed and fit back together in a contemporarily sensical way.

Perhaps I need more Gramsci to understand what’s going on, but what I really want is an analytic that is for us–that is grounded in this culture and this time, not imposed from another, however appropriate or partially relevant it may seem. However well we try to make it fit. It just doesn’t do enough to completely understand what the hell is going on, here. And there probably is at least one, I’m just having some difficultly remember what it is. A little help, folks?

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Power