I was in a technology shop yesterday purchasing a laptop, and this naturally entails interaction of a customer/seller quality. We approach this interaction not as me, Jonny, a person who likes Stand Up Comedy, teaching and pastry and Des* (pseudonym), a person who has interests, worries and ideas. He was there to help me buy the thing I wanted, and things I didn’t. I was there to get a thing I wanted as cheaply as possible.
I told him what I wanted and said that is definitely the one I want, could I get a discount. He said yes and gave me a discount and sent someone to get my laptop. Here is our chat in the interim whilst we waited.
Des – So do you have anything else planned for today?
Jonny – Nah, I’ve been in work so I am just buying my pain away.
Des – That’s the way of the world.
Jonny – I guess so. How about you?
Des – Yeah, I’ll just be here. *looks around the store*
Jonny – … And how’s that?
Des – … YeahtsOK…
Jonny – *reading visual signals on Des’s face* Yeah?
Des – Not good really. Things are not good… I was supposed to be getting married a few months ago and I have to come in everyday pretending I’m fine.
Jonny – Jeez. Sorry to hear that, mate. What, so you have to come in and be all … Smiles and customer service.
Des – … Yeah I have to be their stock person. Like a stock image not a stockroom. Generic positive thing on the shop floor.
Jonny – God.
Des – I studied Marx it’s like … I’m a graduate by the way … It’s like you have to give yourself to the job and stop being yourself.
Jonny – I can relate….
Des – Like alienation isn’t it… *looks around at everything again*
Jonny – *remembers lecture on early work of Karl Marx* Yeah like your species-being is being numbed away
Des – *soft smile* Ha. Exactly… *looks down and exhales* Shit right?
Jonny – *nods and for the first time realises how deep this became, pretty much at the same time as Des seems to do the same*
Des – Well… Can I get you a bag.
Jonny – A bag would be good.
Then his colleague came back, laptop in hand, he said goodbye, I said good luck and he nodded.
I felt weirdly alive as I left the shop, and I know that that sounds horrible, like I am a Death Eater who sucks out the souls of depressed individuals in the retail sector. As I looked around, everyone seemed to be locked into their client-vendor relationship, following the scripts that both of them probably dislike. Myself and Des, in that moment of curious closeness that you can often afford only with paid strangers, seemed to transcend that. By happening to not fit neatly into the role of hyper-professional sales person #547382 and time-pressed customer seeking product, we perhaps contradicted the hollowness of it all. The shallowness. The soullessness.
How often do we slide into these oppositional roles? We so often allow the role to take the driving seat. Customer/salesperson. Caffeine-requirer/Barista. The one on my mind is in the relationship between teachers and the children’s parents, where each of them is seeking a more human relationship yet find data, platitudes and defensiveness from teachers and accommodations, indebtedness or complaint from parents. We speak as our role too often, and not as the person who holds that role.
Roles are important. They often make everything more efficient and they allow us to have clear expectations of what will happen in our interactions. But the roles we fall into are sometimes at the root of the soullessness we bemoan in our interactions. Too much efficiency is horrible. You cannot streamline consciousness.
It is important to see a role as something that we have or something that we do, and not allow a role to become what we are. With the latter, we switch off our senses and live in automatic, taking our hands off the wheel and leading ourselves down wider and longer roads that lack colour, energy and vitality. We won’t find what we are looking for down there.