Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Too Much Service

One of my friends sent me an email yesterday that eloquently explained a mental quirk of mine I did not know anyone else shared. Since the email builds on a previous conversation, I will present an edited version so you can follow along:


I'm slightly jealous of the fact that you'll get to wear Vibrams to work - whatever shoes I end up wearing will almost certainly be less comfortable.


You don't wear Vibrams now. You will be making enough money to buy shoes that look nice while being as comfortable as non-toe shoes can possibly be. You might have to shop in stores you have never set foot in before, and spend hundreds of dollars for each pair, but it is worth it.


While I don't wear Vibrams now, I don't wear snazzy shoes now, either.
I probably will have to shop in nicer stores now.  I wish I didn't have to.  To illustrate why, I should point out that my employer is paying for relocation services, and so I'm working with a real estate agent.  This agency is clearly used to dealing with crazy people - the lady I was originally going to work with had to go to an emergency doctor appointment, and so couldn't call that day. The head of the agency called, repeatedly apologized, and said that she'd try to get the agent to call me in the afternoon (as it turns out, the original agent had to go to the hospital and, according to the agency head, got "very bad news").  My new agent is available until 10:00 PM on her cell phone.  My only thoughts are: what sort of narcissistic nutters must these people deal with on a regular basis, and how can I avoid getting lumped in with them?
So anyway, I don't want to go in really nice stores.  I'm going to shop at JCPenney as much as possible, where they (more often) deal with normal people.

The mental quirk is that excessive customer service makes us both uncomfortable, and is something to be avoided. I get annoyed whenever people do things for me that I could easily do myself. We do not want to be served too much. This seems odd at first. Why would we both prefer to avoid something that a lot of people want to pay for?

The key is in the line, "My only thoughts are: what sort of narcissistic nutters must these people deal with on a regular basis, and how can I avoid getting lumped in with them?". It is clear that, to my friend, an insistence on being served at all costs is a signal of a bad character trait.

Both of us grew up in a lower middle class culture. We are not accustomed to being served. In our worlds, service is something that is done for children, the infirm, and the incompetent. Adults are expected to be self-reliant. Economic exchange should based on specialization and mutual respect. If people are putting a lot of effort into serving us, that means, in our minds, that there is something wrong with us. If we expect that service even in the face of someone else's misfortune, than there is definitely something wrong with us.

I have no problem with people doing things for me if they have a skill, or tools, that I do not. I have no desire to ever learn how to change the oil in my car; it would be a waste of my time to bother with that when I can easily and cheaply hire a specialist. I hate the self checkouts in grocery stores, because they are so slow and inefficient. The cashier can scan and bag a dozen items in the time that it takes me to do one.*

But it really bugs me when, for example, there are no trash cans at a reception and you have to rely on a waiter to carry things off. I hate leaving a mess for other people to deal with. That is the behavior of children, not adults. I have no problem with leaving dirty dishes for them, because clearly I cannot wash the dishes myself and it would be a waste of my time. But it costs me nothing to toss junk in a trash can myself rather than find a tray to put it on.

Our ideas about service are particular to our class and culture. Rich people seem to like ordering others around. They pay a lot of money for the right to feel important and served. They grew up thinking that it was right and proper for other people to do cater to their every whim. Poor people will also spend a lot of money for people to do things for them, like preparing taxes, because they cannot handle the process themselves.

For me and my friend, it is not proper to demand or require too much service, or the wrong kind of service. Being served too much or in an unfamiliar way attacks our self-image at a very deep level. I know that a lot of this is due to habit. There are some kinds of service that we do expect, because we have grown up with them and are comfortable with them. But if we are pushed out of that cultural comfort zone, it makes us feel out of place, uncomfortable, and alien.

*This is partly due to the fact that the self checkouts are programmed with checks and delays to prevent shoplifting. It measures the weight of what you put in the bag against what you just scanned. If you go too fast, it forces you to go back and redo everything. You have to scan an item, wait two second for the horribly slow software to process it, put it in the bag, wait a couple more seconds for the weight reading to be processed, and then continue. During this whole process a loud, nagging voice is talking to you the way that a parent talks to an idiot child.

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