In Defense of Consumerism – It’s not what you think.

This post is written from the perspective of someone who worked in retail for 6 years, joined the entrepreneurial market at a young age, has studied micro and macro economics, and social behavior. I own a number of small (very small, in some cases) businesses, run a company with over 50 active volunteers, and still work a corporate job with a company whose name usually strikes envy (or sympathy) into the hearts of the educated.

I have a variety of great friends out there, many of whom are small business owners who make their own jewelry/clothes/whatever. Some of them are photographers, some are massage therapists, and so on. But by and large, most of my small business owner friends have come out this year in vitriolic wrath at the entire concept of Black Friday. In my heyday I also laughed at the jokes that “only in America” could we be thankful for everything we have one day and then kill each other for greed the next. This post is NOT to tell you about the best deals on Black Friday, because a combination of Ad Sites and Blogs can do that (links provided for reference only).

And now, Black Friday has finally encroached right up into Thanksgiving, a holiday probably more secular and certainly less controversial than those to follow. In my day (which wasn’t that long ago, since my last Black Friday worked was in 2008) opening at 6am was a Big Deal. People camping out overnight was a Big Deal. I think that was the same year that someone got trampled to death at a Walmart… (Someone got stabbed in the parking lot of my Circuit City too, but I don’t know where the article is for that one).

When I first left Circuit City in its downward death spiral, only a few days before they closed their doors for the last time, I swore I would never shop a Black Friday OR work another Black Friday again. The experience was exhausting, and a terrifying examination of human nature. My understanding of it all coalesced when, in the middle of the day on Friday, a poor retired couple asked me why the line was 63 people long when all they needed was an HDMI cable. They had no idea about Black Friday.

The word is that Black stands for the books of most retail stores going from in the red to in the black–but those who work retail know it really means that Black Friday is a dark and unholy day, filled with screaming soccer moms and insane cheapskate dads.

So that’s the bad side. Black Friday is encroaching on one of our few remaining feast days (wait, what? We eat and drink like maniacs whenever we are given the chance!) and besides, family.

Here’s the thing. Our economy is very much consumer driven. And that sucks for those who can’t crank out enough of whatever they make to have a crazy pseudo-cheap sale where millions of people flock to buy, buy, buy. It can be argued that this buying mentality is a direct cause of the people seeking holiday jobs. But a lot of the people who work in retail stores are students, both high school and college students. In the grand scheme of social stigma, people would rather work retail than be fast food employees, and they have some shred of a chance of improving their lot in life (look at my experience–from $8/hr to $42/hr in 6 years without my degree having an impact). And more retailers are hiring which means more jobs.

Are they great jobs? No, probably not. Most starting wages for the big hitting retailers like Walmart are barely above minimum wage. I remember my first year at Circuit City, I was hired on at $8.25 and all the holiday employees came in at $7.25. Our boss gave a speech then–they were basically there for Black Friday. Failing to show up that day was the same as handing in their resignations.

Now, let’s back up from retail and look at all of the other components involved. Shipping. Advertising. Planning. Product placement. Manufacturing is mostly overseas, but that’s true even on normal days of the year. The manufacturing side of the coin is being handled by places where business is still stuck in the industrial age.

Buying a bunch of stuff online means a whole bunch of peoples’ jobs are less necessary. Now, I’m an avid proponent of Amazon, Barnes and Noble online, etc. But one of the reasons their prices are lower a lot of times is because they have fewer employees to worry about. Lower rent. Lower overhead. It’s simple business.

The sales surrounding Black Friday have become a mad tradition–but sometimes they are the only time that some people can afford things that appear nicer–like TVs, computers, etc. Others, little known to the world, are buying up those electronics to hawk on Ebay/Craigslist later. I expect this will especially be the case with the tablets and Ipads on sale this year (For the record, that $300 ipad is only $312 right now on Amazon with no wait).

If you are worried about family, you could always be like these people.

All of this being said, I finally came around and decided to start checking out Black Friday deals. I price compare, of course, like any smart shopper. I would never camp out for anything, cheap or otherwise. But for me, it’s not about saving a few dollars–it’s about the myriad of emotions, the crazy whirlwind of people, the invigorating experience of seeing humanity in its most base form–when thrown together like primal man, all hunting for the same things.

I would advise, for those of you out there, that you shop smart if you shop Black Friday. Many electronics deals that are doorbusters are actually exclusively manufactured for the sale–which means they are built in a hurry and frequently cut corners. This is most true for TVs and computers. Be wary of cheaper-than-they-should-be laptops and TVs, because they are utilizing lower than standard parts even if they are name brand. Clothing is a good bet, and if you are buying electronics verify that the model is one available all the time.

I am not defending the manic obsession with objects that people are all on the bandwagon decrying this year. But understand that with that focus of buying dollars comes something more–human interaction, jobs for starving college students, and a continuation of the brick-and-mortar store. Our economy was built on the backs of small business owners, but that was prior to the concept of mass engineering. In this day and age, small business owners must learn to market themselves and dig a niche in the consumerist market–or be buried under a cascade of barbie dolls and strangle-me-Elmos (Now THIS is a toy that pawns off the affection you should be showing your kids. Seriously).

I am not your sister! An observation of behavior in the workplace.

I apologize for the delay in some posts–NaNoWriMo has devoured my soul this month. Also, rant alert.

Recently I have been embroiled in passionate discussions with some men and other women about my experiences working with male peers in the workplace–particularly those in a certain age range older than I am. While I was doing a little digging to find similar experiences with others, I found this horrible article that I REALLY hope is satire (but based on his other posts, can’t possibly be) and this one with the terrible advice to treat everyone you work with like family. And a whole lot of awkwardly conservative blogs advising that women control men’s sexuality, yadda yadda.

So, with my luck in research, I’m not going to be citing a lot. Instead, I’m going to talk about my own experiences. You can agree or disagree with my interpretation of them, but remember that I have personally experienced these and therefore it really happened. I encourage you to share your own experiences, provided they aren’t “well, I’ve only ever experienced perfect gentlemen in the work place, and you’re just prejudiced against male coworkers.” Not true. I have dozens of male coworkers, and I only have this problem with three of them.

First, let me say that I have worked with my brother, with my wife, and with my mother. I have also been known to tell people who volunteer under me that I’ve got so many younger siblings that I am stuck in permanent “big sister” mode–which has been my way of explaining when I worry about what people eat, whether they are drinking too much, etc. However, I have never used that attitude as an excuse to bully people into taking the actions at work that I expect of them. And as I am realizing how frustrating I find this series of events, I am also making the effort to let people figure out their own eating habits without my help.

As some of you may know, I have been in the IT field for about 11 years–for the first 6 of those in a retail capacity, but nonetheless. As I moved into the more professional sector, I have encountered many male figures of nonauthority who seem driven to take it upon themselves to be my “protector.”
And while it might seem nice to have someone big, tall, with a booming voice or whatever rushing over to get you out of sticky situations every time you talk yourself into a corner–that’s not what is actually going on here.

At the moment I have only two key examples of this, but there were three before one of them moved on from the company. All at the same time.

Exhibit A: Individual decides he likes me. So any time anyone mentions my name, he makes sure I know about it. But that also means that he doesn’t want me to move out of the role I am in, he wants to keep his “little sister” around. So he tells me stories about how this person or that person is holding me back, trying to pit me against other coworkers.
Oh, and he always warns me to watch my back if I get into a verbal sparring match with someone. (This is the person who is now gone).

Exhibit B: This one picks fights with me via email to “show me” that I need to learn to be more positive and present more solutions via email, instead of only presenting what won’t work. That would be a totally valid point if it came to me in a private conversation instead of a CC-all fight wherein he ribs me for not having my usual humor.
Oh yeah, he usually tells me he thinks of me as a little sister. But he also sends me emails saying “Really? Why would you say something like that with people CCed?” and then doesn’t realize I am being sarcastic when I tell him “Thanks for your dedication to my career.” He likes to say people are “always” saying that I “always have  negative things to say,” but of course can never provide examples.

Exhibit C: This guy does it to everybody, not just me. I should say, all the women. He pokes and prods. He tries to tickle me. He pretends to punch me in the face and teases me if I flinch. He walks up behind me and rubs my shoulders. He’s constantly coming up with weird pet names. He’d totally be the perfect big brother, except we’re not related and I work with him. Did he ever check in with me to see if I was cool with being touched? Nope. Not even a little.

So here’s where there is a pretty fine line. I’m casual friends with each of these people, and I am also personally a fairly open individual. So it’s not like I am hiding my family life or personality from anyone I work with.
However, what I have found in my own experiences is that this sliding over the line from “colleague I like” to “my little sister” eliminates something that drives the coworker to actually listen when someone like me says “Stop that! I’m really bothered by this thing you are doing!”

It also appears to be a convenient and patriarchal way for these men to try to make me do what they want–because they just want what’s best for me, because they are more experienced and know about these things, because I am raw, unfiltered, loud, etc etc and will make waves or make enemies…

Don’t get me wrong. I like having friends at work. I like chatting about non-work things. I don’t like being told by a peer who has no management clout over me that I’m going to get myself in trouble if I don’t toe his imaginary line.

The last two of these both have daughters, so I suppose I should be grateful that they aren’t treating me like a daughter?

Interestingly, I have foils to these people in the real world who don’t treat me this way. I haven’t been able to determine if it’s the difference in perceived respectability (IE at work I’m one of many, outside of work I have other accomplishments) or if it’s just flat out personality of these people.

So now that the rant half of this is out, and most likely one part babble, let’s talk about the behaviors.

Essentially, a friend would point out “Hey, you might want to consider rephrasing that,” or “Hey, I think a breather is in order.” They would not say “You need to change your behavior and/or do this thing my way because I have your best interests at heart and I know what’s best for you.”

You know what? You don’t know what’s best for me. If it’s not OK for the government or my father or a random stranger to dictate who I am (and it isn’t!), it also isn’t OK for a colleague to take on the role of some kind of protector who can only protect me by telling me what to do. You don’t have my back. You have what you think is a leash. And I am not yours to tame, my friend.

I promised I was done ranting, but I guess that’s not entirely true. Ultimately, my point is that no adult can prove their own value and respectability when being overshadowed by a “big brother” figure who insists on holding their hand whether they want it or not. Get out of the way and let me succeed or fail on my own merit.