Following the script

14 Oct

Is it healthy for individuals and societies to routinely tell untruths? Sure we all do it. Think of the most common exchanges between individuals: ‘Hello, how are you?’ “I’m fine’. Normally the last thing we want to hear is how someone is actually doing. Think of how dull a verbatim account of someone’s medical woes would be. In our everyday interactions, we’re often acting out a socially prescribed script.

But a recent trip to the US got me thinking about just how much of everyday interaction is scripted by corporations, and what are the implications of this for society? For example, I was struck by how many times I ordered food at a restaurant to be told by the waiter/waitress ‘Oh, that’s my favourite!’ This was unlikely since invariably my order was the least healthy thing on the menu and invariably the server was a lean college student who has never eaten transfats in their lives. Or when I brought an item of clothing to the counter in a clothes store I’d be told, ‘Great choice!’ by someone who really wasn’t into early middle age wear. Clearly these are corporate scripts and the staff have been told to say this to every customer. Many of the staff probably don’t enjoy this, but just get on with it to stay in employment.

It works at the political level too. At a campaign stop in Michigan the other day Ann Romney told the crowd, ‘We’re not doing this for ourselves. We’re doing this for all those out there that are suffering.’ I’m sorry Ann but I just don’t believe you. Of course, many politicians play the same game, shifting their message to suit the audience.

My question is this: does routinized lying (and let’s be honest, it is the deliberate telling of mistruths or things that the sayer does not truly believe) have implications for society? And more particularly, does it have implications for how individuals interact with one another? Clearly we all engage in a certain level of dissembling. It is the diplomatic grease that oils everyday interaction in families, communities and the workplace. But if people are provided with scripts from their employer (‘Have a nice day!’, ‘Good to see you’ etc.) does this interfere with the ability of individuals to strike up real conversations, to interact in a genuine way, to connect with other human beings on an empathetic level? I’m not sure. Many people will be deft enough to compartmentalise their corporate script and reserve it for the workplace. But over the long term, I do worry about the impact of a trend that interferes with the ability of humans to communicate with one another in a free way. One group of theories around the causation of conflict posits that conflicts break out because of miscommunication. Perhaps these scripted interactions are encouraging miscommunication and de-skilling individuals and societies from the ability to communicate with each other in a genuine way.

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