I like my coffee with milk, sugar, and a little eye contact, please

Wikimedia Commons
 At least this vending machine smiles (it’s from Japan). Wikimedia Commons.

“I already swept the floor” said the annoyed woman behind the cash register, yelling over her shoulder to no one in particular. She managed to take my order, and my money, without ever looking at me.

It was the 100th transaction recently that occurred at this particular brand of coffee store without a single shred of human contact.  She might as well have been withdrawing money from at ATM. If I owned an enormous mutli-national chain of coffee shops that got away with wildly overcharging because of the alleged experience people enjoy while going there, this lack of a simple smile or “thank you” would break my heart. After all, I could get coffee from a vending machine.  Heck, even those are friendly now, I might as well start looking at recommendations at The Full Moon Cafe for new coffee machines, I’d probably have a more enjoyable consumer experience brewing my own coffee, at least then I could smile at myself.

I *hate* when people read email while talking to me.  I probably hate it irrationally. I just feel a zing in my soul when someone is looking down and typing while allegedly talking to me.  I have a friend who often tells stories — good stories, mind you — and then second he hits his punchline and it’s my time to talk, he grabs his phone from the table. It’s hard to stay friends.

Of course, it’s mechanically possible for someone to hear me say, “Hey, I quit my job today!” while texting about the score of a game. But it’s not really possible to hear what’s being spoken.

I have a deep suspicion that these two things – poor customer service and poor conversational style — are connected.  I feel a great oncreep of situations where it’s perfectly normal to barely notice the people around us.  We are all so used to interacting with machines that we are losing track of our ability to interact with humans.

Yes, I’m speaking quite personally and anecdotally. But there is some data (oh, there’s that word) to back me up.  Last year, a firm named Quantified Impressions made the rounds with a study suggesting U.S. adults are engaging in only about half the amount of eye contact that they used to.  In other words, smartphones aren’t just hurting our eyes, they are making us invisible to each other.

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I was lucky enough to study philosopher Martin Buber in college. I’ve long forgotten almost everything I learned about him, but for his main contribution to philosophy, which I will now butcher before all scholars, but I don’t really care.  According to Buber, in every interaction with another human, we either treat them as a thing or as a person.  Brutally translated into English, he referred to these two possibilities as either “I-It” or “I-Thou.” Clearly, treating someone else as a person lifts them up, makes their soul feel alive, and in his view, brings both participants closer to God. I-Thou connections are born of love. Treating someone like an object, like an “it”, dehumanizes them.  The ability to “Thing-i-fy” a person has tremendous consequences. It’s much easier to ignore or mistreat a thing, for example. That’s what you see in street harassment, for example – men talking to women as things. Writing as a Jew in Austria during the early part of this century, Buber’s philosophy portended things that make you shudder.

Buber’s essay laying out the idea was first published in 1923, when there were already concerns that modern life and the rise of machines would make it increasingly harder for people to treat others as people. The Industrial Revolution already had poets writing about human alienation.

Buber’s work has long since been criticized as overly simplistic. We all do a little of both kinds of interaction in nearly every conversation.  But I have always been attracted to the idea, particularly when I walk away from a negative interaction at Starbucks (oops!) feeling worse than it seems I should. Somewhere inside, I rile against being treated like an ATM, and I hope I always will. I hope you do, too.  If that weren’t true, the genuine warm smiles and jokes I get wouldn’t impact me, either.

But what really scares me is when I think I’m talking to a person, but I discover I’m talking to a robot instead. OK, I don’t expect friendliness for $3. But really, in a world of commodities, what are you selling, Mr. Schultz? Being a good person is good for business.  Teach your employees that the human being in front of them (who is still deciding how much of their money to give you) is more important than sweeping the floor.  You’ll be doing humanity a favor. And Mr. Buber will smile from wherever he is.

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About Bob Sullivan 1637 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.