Dissing Our Hindbrains

Why do people get so irritable in check-outs and at shop counters? Answer: mixed messages. Since we do not demonstrate relative status by mounting one another in public like the forest chimps, we have developed other markers for social power. I show that I am a bigger beast than you in three ways: by renaming you, by making you stand while I sit, and by making you wait on my pleasure. Now consider the checkout line; one person is sitting while everyone else is standing and waiting. Two of the three animal markers are therefore telling us that the checkout worker is our superior. We are being put in our place. I am saying, not that the workers should be standing up (it’s a lousy enough job as it is), or that there should be twice as many of them as there are customers, merely that the logical commercial situation has an illogical psychological corollary.

The language of hierarchical superiority can be modified by the worker’s harassed demeanour and tentatively overridden by our conscious awareness that this humiliation is force majeure. But the moment the shop’s behaviour reinforces the message that the customer’s time is worthless – for example when only one checkout is manned, and the other staff are swanning around straightening stuff instead of opening up another line – the buttons are pressed harder. We are “dissed” worst of all by all those shop assistants who make us wait on their pleasure while they discuss their private lives. And we who thought that the customer was king! The shop’s verbal language collides at speed with its body language.

An upscale shop gets this right by displaying submissive animal behaviour to the customer, at least provided the customer is displaying adequate social status herself. Where downscale shops and supermarkets get it wrong is in mimicking the sycophantic verbal behaviour of the purveyor of goods to the Quality, while at the same time by physical behaviour giving our animal hindbrains precisely the opposite message. 

When South Korean customers call a company, and their call is not answered by a human being within ten seconds, they put the phone down. Europeans and Americans, on the other hand, have been trained to listen to queue music and automated responses for half an hour at a time. Dissing the Western customer is, apparently, like “work” in Parkinson’s Law: it expands to fill the time available for its completion. 

Posted on June 16, 2009 at 09:14 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Monkey Agenda

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