Thursday, January 19, 2012


I remember seeing Bill Clinton's plastic smile during the Democratic Convention back 1994.  He was doing his annoying lip biting thing.  You know, the thing where he pretends to be so excited, child-like and pure he can barely contain himself from wetting because he is witnessing such an ordinary wonder as being in someone's presence.  It's sort of alike a puppy that tinkles after you get home from work because he's excited to see you.  It's incredibly fake, and totally annoying.  His entire persona was nothing more than a fabricated lie.  Why people couldn't see through the facade was beyond me.  His lip biting nonsense was just one notch above Richard Nixon's fake smile, all the while wearing a nervous toupee of sweat above the lip.

Whenever I go to a restaurant, I watch closely how the waitress interacts with me.  Is her smile just a little too wide for someone she just met?  Is she laughing when I am not joking?  And, most tellingly, when she drops off the bill to the person she expects to pay, does she only make eye contact and say goodnight at the bill payer or to everyone else?  This, more than anything, gets to the heart of her real motivation.  Not that I should especially care.  I've been to Europe, where servers don't work based on tips.  The service is horrendous.  They don't even try.  In France, you ask Pierre to bring you your bill and he flips you off and finishes his cigarette while filing his nails.  I suppose I should be happy I'm getting a shit eating grin along with a warm dinner plate, even if it isn't real.  The problem is I hate to be had.  I don't like it when others think they can manipulate my emotions.  The lack of authenticity bothers me.  There is a dishonesty, a perversion of the nature of human interaction that shouldn't be happening.

I was a waiter for three years during college.  While greeting tables, I was pleasantly warm, but I tried to never overdo it.  I didn't want to become the flair button guy from Office Space.  At all the customer service jobs I've had, management never seemed to properly understand the balance between being transparently fake and pleasantly warm.  Most of the sales suggestions from higher up consisted of advice that would make even a rabid Jehovah's witness run away.  Obviously the higher up sales executives never worked at the ground level or they would know how to properly interact with customers.

Whenever I call a customer service center and I get some corporate greeting such as "Hello, welcome to Rip Off Center, how may I delight you today?"  I feel nauseous.  Just keep it real.  The same goes for television commercials when you see  workers dressed with tucked in shirts, smiling, and speaking to the customers with such formality you feel like you are in pre-1950 Alabama.  "Gee Ward, why'd you have to be so tough on the Beev?" I could hear Mrs. Cleaver saying.  Not that I would rather almost get shot or treated like I'm at Wendy's, but something warm but authentic would be nice.

Perhaps the thing I dislike about it is because instead of seeming friendly, fake niceness ends up being dehumanizing.  It turns the person into an object--a customer.  The purpose of the customer-object is to extract money.  While obviously this is the case in business, it shouldn't be so transparent.  The naked emotional brutality of the transaction doesn't need to be highlighted.  One egregious example of recognizing this and using Orwellian Doublespeak to hide the truth is at Target.  They stopped calling people "customers" and started calling them "guests".  Somehow, this was supposed to make everyone believe that shoppers all of the sudden were their best friends.  I'm not shopping, I'm coming home.  If that's the case, can I open a jug of milk, drink from the nozzle, and then put it away almost empty?  Can I take off my shoes and relax on the furniture?  Maybe air my socks a bit?  Until I can do these things, then I prefer to be a customer.  After all, I don't want to be best friends with Target, I am just looking to buy a toilet plunger.

People should be authentic and warmly pleasant, even if they are having a bad day.  But this is just using normal manners.  After all, normal manners and being polite are the social grease that makes social interaction bearable.

Social intelligence is about drawing a fine line.  If someone is very sensitive to someone being plastic, then it can really be a turn off when they are fed playdough.  Overacting in movies is annoying.  In real life it is the same way.  Being an effective waiter, waitress, or customer service representative isn't easy, especially when you have bosses who expect you to act like a Ken or Barbie doll in hopes of ringing a little bit of extra money out of the customer.


  1. Dennis:

    I can sympathize with your ideas here. Your post reminds me of an interaction I had with one of our law school professors who is also a very accomplished court room attorney.

    He was was stressing non-verbal communication (NVC). In the process he applied several NVC methods: eye contact, open body language, smiling, reaching out to the other party, touching the other party, etc.

    I didn't tell him then that I thought his methods were over-done, obvious, and given that any observant and reasonably well-educated person should see them for the attempted emotional manipulation that they are, crass and insulting to the intellect.

    Nevertheless, in the years since, I have struggled to reconcile my distaste for these methods with his clear and consistent success with these same methods. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, if they're wrong, why do so very many people use them with great success the largest part of the time??

    I hypothesize that most people are receptive to such methods because the alternative, to think and make real arguments, is much harder; they are more comfortable being led around by their emotions.

  2. Minotaur, thank you for the post. Perhaps it is that many people are easily manipulated. Perhaps few people have the social intelligence and sensitivity to pick up on the phony behavior. After all, we do live in a country where we have the choice between Mr. Plastic Hair and empty suit (Romney) v.s. Mr. Six Pack Wall Street Puppet (Obama) for the presidency. This situation is like cable TV. It is so obviously shitty and devoid of reason it applies to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, this appears to be the case with phony behavior as well. Sad. I also agree that most people don't like to use reason. It's too much work, and many people are just untrained on how to think logically. It is much easier to rely on raw emotions.