Our uneasiness about our nation’s long shift to service economy has spun off a number of cultural expressions.
A few examples I cited in the last post were related to our attempt to hold onto the myths and values of the skilled trades even as they become marginalized in the nation's economic life. It seems to me that this anxiety might also be seen in the widespread use of social media to complain about customer service.
Almost every major brand on earth now has a Facebook page dedicated to failures in customer service, or in the parlance of soc-med: how much they suck. Sears sucks as does Home Depot as does as does JC Penney. JP Morgan sucks. Fidelity sucks. Bank of America suuuuucks. McDonalds sucks. Burger King sucks. All the airlines suck of course. As do all the telecoms. And all the cable companies.
And branded twitter hashtags can sound almost biblical in their Job-like litanies devoted to the miseries inflicted by bad service. Above is a Cablevision thread but just about any brand + sucks will tell the same story.
When any form of expression becomes pervasive it's hard to hear what’s new and strange about it anymore. So if you want to refresh your experience of all this complaining, try getting a member of the boomer generation (a parent will do for many of us) to read one of the “X brand sucks” threads and watch their faces wrinkle into one of those “why do people waste time on this unpleasant nonsense” expressions.
In the most annoying and yet apt expression of the era, these old people just don’t get it. We may like to think that what they don’t get is how empowered we are now that we can complain on social media to brands who better listen or WATCH OUT because we can spread our complaints to the four corners of the earth. But the generation gap doesn’t work that way. Older generations aren’t necessarily blind to contemporary experiences. They just don’t need what we need. They got and get their satisfactions elsewhere.
What the non-net-complaining-generation don't get is that our new social rules have been defined by our new social-economic roles. We are a nation of service providers providing service to a nation of service providers. No wonder we are so judgmental, so impatient, so demanding, so intolerant of minuscule FAIL-ures. Every time our service economy fails us, we feel implicated in the exchange. How do we expect to make it, unless we all give %110 all the time, people. Pro-class members of a previous generation would have never dreamed of asking to change places with a cashier or barista; we contemporary service pros will happily do it: just to show them show how it's done.
Consumer advocates argue that we complain so often now because we can. And that’s probably true. (It's certainly and obviously true social media has become an important tool of political activism.) But it seems to me it's also true that we complain so often because we need to. It's a point of pride, a reminder of the expectations we all have to meet. It's service we were born for. It’s Bergdorf's we mourn for.
Of course not all of us are blind to the cultural contradictions of the service economy. I've recently become sensitized to the prevalence of scenes in TV shows and movies that represent customer service failures, including an entire series that seems devoted to the social tensions created by our service-to-service culture, Portlandia. But more on that next time...