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Being Personal in an Impersonal Market

On July 3rd of last year, I walked into a grocery store to pick up some last-minute food items. I suppose that I was really excited about the long weekend because I did something that I never, ever do: I asked my cashier, “Do you have any fun plans for the Fourth?”

I threw her off guard. A momentary look of surprise, consternation, terror, and joy came into the cashier’s eyes (I later learned that her name was Shannon) before she proceeded to tell me all about her upcoming weekend.

Since business was slow, Shannon and I got into a short but rewarding conversation that went from weekend plans to swapping stories about our hometowns. At the end of it, I felt that I understood her more as a person and had set myself apart from the faceless, nameless, silent consumer that I normally am.

I ran into a problem later that day: It seems like the market is what allows me to become that polite but bland and non-relational consumer.

The Blessing of the Impersonal

The market is, by nature, impersonal and that is actually an awesome thing. Dr. Ronald Nash describes its impersonal nature by comparing it to an urban traffic pattern:

One example of a spontaneous and impersonal order is an urban traffic pattern. As a city develops and grows over a long period of time, certain traffic patterns evolve. Anyone getting into a car in preparation for a drive across town must make numerous choices in response to such things as one-way streets, traffic lights, stop signs, and speed limits. Such traffic patterns are impersonal because they apply to everyone; they were not designed just for college graduates or white people or Presbyterians.

The free market’s standards are objective: As long as I have the required cash, I can buy groceries. Neither my popularity, nor my appearance, nor my belief system impact my ability to get what I need—no one knows and no one cares.

Better yet, I can order online without talking to a single person. The objective standards, justice, and convenience of an impersonal market are great news for any society.

Too Much Independence

Like any good thing, however, we can abuse the benefits and freedoms of the impersonal market.

[pq]Like any good thing, we can abuse the benefits and freedoms of the impersonal market.[/pq]

Instead of allowing business to be appropriately impersonal, we go too far and allow ourselves to dehumanize business altogether. That’s why we consider it normal to mumble a disinterested, “How are you?” while checking our Instagrams or keeping an eye on our items as they roll down the belt. And if our cashier makes a mistake, that’s annoying and inconvenient for us; we don’t really know or care why he or she made the error.

And so the story unfolds: We, the consumer become the subject, while the individual who is helping us becomes the object—a means toward our end. The end is, of course, the economic transaction.

Beyond the Grocery Store

This type of behavior extends far beyond the grocery store; it becomes a mentality. We create value at work, in order to further ourselves, make money, feel valuable. Once we leave work, we become consumers, buying things and experiences that we hope will help us somehow.

Too often, people become merely the means to our economic ends. As we rush from commitment to party to commitment and then back to work in an attempt to “make a difference” or to “have a life” or to “get ahead,” we brush aside coworkers, family members, roommates, friends… and cashiers at the grocery store. In our focus on ourselves as consumers, we find it inconvenient or uncomfortable to put their needs as human beings before our own.

The Choice

I don’t want to minimize the benefits or beauty of impersonal business transactions. I simply want to point out that when we use them as an excuse to do what is easiest, we fall prey to the consumer mentality, dehumanizing ourselves and others.

For many, the days of general stores and small towns are an unattainable, romantic notion. And it’s not always practical or desirable (for ourselves or the other party) to strike up an in-depth conversation with everyone we do business with.

What we do need to understand, however, is that the human extends far beyond the economic. The market is an amazing tool that can help us reach our potential—but only if we use it within its proper scope.

We can look at our cashier who we know nothing about and make that, “How are you?” just a little more interested. We can take our eyes away from our phone or our items and look at the people around us—wonder what life looks like from their perspectives. We can remember that the people in our lives have intrinsic value, not just as objects for our own goals. We can extend our hospitality, give our time, and listen to problems… even when it is impractical, inconvenient, and “irrational” in a strict economic sense.

The market allows us to conduct impersonal economic transactions. It’s a wonderful, fair, convenient system that still gives us the capacity to invest in people—draining, inconvenient, and incredibly rewarding as they are.

As always, the market system leaves us with a choice to make.