Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Saccharine Sweetness of Commercially Flavored Niceness


I would estimate that 85% of the cashiers at my favorite grocery store are college students, and God bless ‘em for working to make a little money while they’re in school. In the past year I’ve noticed that when they start ringing up my groceries they have taken to a whole other level the normal social niceties like, “How are you today?” Now they say, with a Redbull fueled enthusiasm that makes you wonder if they have a golden retriever tail wagging back there somewhere, “So, what do you have planned for tonight / this weekend?”

I find this new approach very intrusive and unsettling.

Now before you label me a curmudgeonly misanthrope (in grad school we’re taught to say that instead of “grumpy old man”) let me explain. I’m not at all against social pleasantries with people I don’t know. I engage people in small talk all the time. Polite, sincere conversation, even with someone you may never see again, can just make everything a little nicer. But I’ll tell you it’s tough to do it on campus at A&M, because to the undergrads, except for the students I teach and my teammates on the cycling team, I’m just a creepy old dude who is not to be talked to or even glanced at. It’s not like I’m some emotionally needy loner who can’t make friends with people my age roaming around campus looking for 20 year old friends for life, but, let me tell you, it stings a little bit to be ignored and shunned by people who seem to think I’m uncool just because I, like, don’t even have a smart phone and, like, only have, like, an I-pod shuffle (I’m also shunned by a few people my age who know me, but I’m OK with that. The Tuesday Night Bowling League won’t have Mark McGraw to kick around anymore). It’s just when this college student, the same one who wouldn’t go to the trouble to pee on me if I were on fire on campus at A&M, suddenly wants to chat me up about my weekend plans like he’s really interested in me, I smell a rat. A big, fat, profit-driven corporate directed rat. So it’s not the college student I really have a beef with with whom I really have a beef. He’s just viewing me with the same disdain he has for his parents who conditioned him to believe that adults were just losers who only exist to buy him things and drive him to Little League.

My problem is with the corporate drones and managers who oblige the kid to act like he’s my new best friend instead of allowing him to make sure he charges me for the 3 lb. bag of Meow Mix instead of the 15 lb. bag.

Then, thinking about this whole issue made me wonder something that I’ll pose to you. How many of our social interactions are colored by the promise of a commercial transaction? Are we so inundated with sales pitches that are covered over with some thin veneer of some fake personal appeal for friendship that we now have a warped view of both? If we must constantly generate insincere friendships with people we can’t stand in order to court their business, how are we conditioned to view those people who can’t do anything for us commercially, the people Jesus called “the least of these”?

The whole thing makes me want to really examine what makes our society run and wonder if there’s a better way. In the meantime, I feel like I need to defend myself so I’m working on a story. And the next cashier who asks me my plans for the weekend is going to hear a story that may scar him for life.