“Have a nice day.”
These words were spoken to me by a very haggard looking twenty-something female about two weeks ago. She seemed nice enough – probably someone who would enjoy chatting with you over a cup of coffee about music, family, or friends. But I was pretty certain of something when she said this.
She didn’t mean it. Its not that she was a mean person or anything – I just don’t think that the most pressing issue on her mind at the moment was whether the rest of my day was enjoyable or not.
Here is what was going on at the moment: she had just handed me a couple of sacks full of various forms of semi-digestible, grease-saturated food, two cheaply made toys that originated from Asia, and a factory-processed salad. In return, I had given her $11.48.
She told me to “have a nice day” because somewhere behind the drive-through window at her workplace is a company manual, identical to the same company manual in thousands of other workplaces that tells her she is supposed to recite those words to me after she hands me my sack of deep-fried, processed food product. Presumably, I will be impressed by the fact that she and the McDonald’s Corporation want me to have a nice day, my experience will be slightly more pleasant, and I will be slightly more inclined to come back more often.
Her words were all about marketing and branding that would benefit other people. It had nothing to do with any relationship that the two of us shared.
It felt icky that we were both there – in the same place at the same time – pretending to have a real relationship when her words were utterly insincere. It was even icky-er than the food she had just handed me.
It was in that moment – the moment where she spoke those words and I simultaneously realized that she was only saying them because she had to – that I had an truly disturbing epiphany: corporate culture really is dehumanizing us all.
I had heard the accusation before, of course. But I had always dismissed such an accusation as the semi-coherent ramblings of a bunch of ex-hippies and hippy wannabes: probably the result of too much LSD during the 60s.
But this was one of those rare moments in life: one where a light suddenly comes on and the world changes in an instant. Lines suddenly formed between various dots from my education and experience, forming a completely new picture before the words had even finished coming out of her mouth.
She was there because she wanted to get a relatively small paycheck from an international corporation (or its carefully controlled franchisee). By my rough calculations, she would probably get to “keep” about 20-40 cents of the money I gave her when she got her paycheck. It would also probably cost about $4-$5 to pay for overhead for the restauraunt, for the paper goods she handed me, and for the ingredients (such as they are) in the food that I purchased.
The rest of the money that I gave her would flow from this small establishment to a local bank account, then to an larger international bank account. The money from that account would be distributed to people in various levels of corporate management: CEOs, CFOs, marketing people, advertisers, etc., etc. What is left over would then be distributed to shareholders – a few of whom are very wealthy, but most of whom (to be fair) are probably average, every day working folks who are nervously watching their retirement accounts to see whether its investments will be sufficient for their retirement.
This was not a transaction between myself and this nice young lady who cared about my day. It was a transaction between me and this giant, impersonal machine comprised of thousands of people, most of whom don’t know each other at all.
There was a time when things worked differently. I remember my how my grandmother, who ran an independently owned dress shop in a small town, used to talk about how she “traded” with certain people, and they “traded” with her. She was living in a community where she had relatinoships with other people. Everyone’s livelihood, as she saw it, depended on their willingness to do business with each other. Their money and loyalties stayed with the people they had relationships with.
But today, it is all about a group of large companies sucking up money into a giant international financial system that – after processing the money through an incredibly costly bureaucracy that seeks to enrich and perpetuate itself – will return it to some of us in the form of a few dollars and cents in our investment or bank accounts.
We all buy into this system – literally – because of two things: (1) mass-produced products are cheaper than products produced in smaller quantities (thus, we get more stuff and service for our dollar) AND (2) the art and science of marketing has become so well-developed that aggressively, smartly advertised products are more attractive to us, even if they are inferior. In short, large investment capital has a signficiant advantage over small, independent business in most arenas, because it can produce a cheaper product or service that is perceived to be more attractive.
The story repeats itself again and again: Microsoft, Walmart, Nike, Electronic Arts, Apple and its IPod. All of these are companies that have squashed their under-capitalized competeition with a strategy involving mass-production and aggressive marketing.
The system is not designed to enrich the young twenty-something that spoke to me any more than it is designed to improve the quality of my “day.” To the contrary, it works “best” if it can get away with paying her (and her manager) as little as legally possible. That way, more money flows upward into the corporate bureaucracy and through to the shareholders.
So there you have it: I give her $11.48, she gives me some nasty tasting food, and a bunch of people that neither of us know end up with most of the money from the transaction. Nobody really cares what sort-of day anyone else has.
This, then, is the McCulture: it is a place where meaningful relationships, relationships which of course always included an economic component, have been hijacked by a consumption-driven machine.
I’m not so concerned with what this means for political reform – indeed, I think that you may well create more problems for everyone by over-regulating market economies. Nor am I ready to join the Wal-Mart bashing crowd, insisting that everyone “buy local.”
But I am suddenly concerned about how I can go about forming authentic relationships with the people I encounter in the McCulture. And I now find myself wondering, what does it mean to be the presence of Jesus in the midst of it?