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Pardon My Consumerism


We’ve all heard the Black Friday horror stories—a woman uses pepper spray to make her way through a crowd, a shopper stabs a Marine in the back, a pregnant woman is trampled in a stampede of eager consumers.

Black Friday brings out the very worst of American consumerism, and, save for a few bad seeds, we all disapprove of the rudeness and selfishness that make headlines every Thanksgiving weekend. After all, it’s just stuff. Stuff isn’t worth pushing, shoving, shouting, or cutting lines. A free market flooding itself with steep discounts to kick off the holiday season doesn’t make us free to be jerks.

But the truth is, there’s a little bit of that nasty Christmas selfishness in all of us, all year long. It’s a slow leak for most, but it poisons everyday encounters in the marketplace between one Black Friday and the next.

Sure, you’re going to be a little more patient with the customer service rep when you’re full of Christmas cheer. You may even pity their imprisonment in the Black Friday retail zoo. And, sure, you’ll tip a little more around the holidays, but when January wraps up, it’s back to barking demands and taking out our frustration on the businesses that serve us.

Rude Customers Pounce All Year

Anyone who has worked in customer service has had experiences with rude customers, but the vast majority of customer relations complaints, or at least the ones that get addressed, are about poor customer service, not poor customership (a sanitized term for various levels of rude consumerism, the peak of which we see on Black Friday).

We take out our frustration on frontline employees who have very little power to change the policies we’re angry with.

Even those of us with customer service experience constantly rail on the phone company and the box store returns desk, taking out our frustration on frontline employees who have very little power to change the policies we’re angry with.

Consider fast-food service as an example. Many a Taco Bell employee has served customers in the drive-thru who order 50 tacos and expect them to be ready in the usual amount of time, making their impatience known with restless body language and long glares through the service window.

A barista friend once had a customer who ordered “coffee with ice,” and she cheerfully made him an iced coffee. He took it upon himself to lecture her, in a public establishment, on her incompetence—“coffee with ice” obviously means hot coffee with a few ice cubes.

What’s Behind Our Feverish Stampede?

We’re all rude to the people that serve us on occasion, though not always as openly aggressive as the iced coffee customer or the Black Friday pepper-sprayer. Why? I mean, no one likes rude people. Even rude people don’t like rude people.

Yet every day we are confronted with rudeness, dishing out as much as we take in; it touches all aspects of our lives. Siblings make snide remarks to each other in the backseat; a wife snaps at her husband for no apparent reason; a customer makes extraordinary demands from the waitstaff, down to the type of fork and the amount of ice in his drink, and doesn’t leave a tip.

We all expect a little consumer insanity when retailers offer major sales, but, perhaps surprisingly, nowhere has rudeness and impoliteness been more of a concern of late than on college campuses. Says P. M. Forni, cofounder of the Civility Project at John Hopkins University and author of “Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct” (2002):

To try to explain the current high incidence of incivility on college campuses we can invoke the continuing decline of the principle of authority, the fact that the new generations have not received serious training in good manners at home, genuine ignorance about expected behavior, and the rising costs of college tuition, with the attendant rise of a consumer mentality among students.

So Forni cites a “consumer mentality” as a cause for incivility, which implies that the marketplace is characterized by incivility.

For all we lovers of capitalism, that is not a reputation we want to bear. Yet this characterization isn’t without its base in reality, as we sustain it in our everyday interactions among consumers and providers.

Does Money Turn People Into Objects?

With students increasingly sensitive to the amount of debt they accumulate in college, they begin to see instructors as service providers. This means, according to the educators cited here, that students are shedding any pretense of civility in the classroom, expecting instructors to entertain them, to entice them to learn the material, rather than studiously delving into their work with purposeful self-engagement.

‘We are used to seeing others as means to the satisfaction of our desires rather than ends in themselves.’

The principal question of millennial students seems to be, “What am I paying you for?”

Professors will often say that students somehow misunderstand that colleges aren’t really “service providers on the same ordinary level as cable companies and fast-food joints. But of course they are service providers. I pay university tuition, and in return they give me a college education, potentially even a diploma. That’s a sale. What else do you call an exchange of service for compensation?

Yet I wonder when a realization that the mundaneness of market exchanges characterizes higher learning, like a million other things, became a legitimate excuse to disrespect authority, slouch in your chair and cram headphones into your ears when the lesson plan takes a boring turn. Forni states, “Our manners inevitably suffer when… We are used to seeing others as means to the satisfaction of our desires rather than ends in themselves.”

What is it about payment that leads some to think that you can treat your provider however you want, that for the brief time they serve you they are your servant? What is it about competition with other shoppers that turns a one-day sale into a retail version of the Hunger Games?

Capitalism is useful, beautiful, and free. But it would be a whole lot more enjoyable and run smoother if we could be a little less rude to each other.

Civility Is Essential to a Free Society

“What am I paying you for?” is a perfectly valid and amoral question. But somehow it has been tainted, contaminated by whatever ideas have replaced the old, stale, biblical ones about decency and kindness and the Golden Rule. These treat people as ends in themselves, not a means to a consumeristic end, or an obstacle to run over in your quest for a new TV.

Civility is like WD-40, keeping the cogs of a capitalist society turning smoothly.

As Forni points out, civility is not just an abstract principle that we adhere to because we’re supposed to. It enriches the lives around us, helps us build and keep healthy relationships, and relieves stress. Civility is like WD-40, keeping the cogs of a capitalist society turning smoothly. It greases the doors of opportunity, though you may not notice its subtle impact.

While he realized the value of private enterprise and free markets, Alexis De Tocqueville also wrote extensively on the importance of association and community in sustaining American life: “Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.”

If we want to be civilized, we must associate with others. But we cannot well associate with others without some measure of good faith, good manners, and genuine goodwill.

That’s because we are not mere robots exchanging widgets and tokens in an elaborate system that sustains our needs. We are a society of real people, with thoughts and feelings, deserving of decency. Capitalism is nothing without society, and a civil society benefits capitalism.

So can’t we be civil? Do you really need to order 50 tacos from your car, or tap your feet until they arrive? Must you deride an employee who mistakenly gives you an iced coffee instead of coffee with ice, or rip a video game console out the hands of a fellow shopper?

Of course not. A free market and the fact that you can “take your business elsewhere” doesn’t make you free to be an ass. It’s really that simple, and our free markets will be so much more enjoyable for it.