Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Coming Apart: Pants on Fire

Small confession: sometimes, salespeople* say terrible things.

The same clothes. Over and over ...
As a salesman, sometimes I just have to have a lot to say to people who don't really know what to say to me. Sometimes, this is about the clothes that I look at for about 32 hours each week, that they're seeing for the first time. This kind of familiarity allows me to say things about the clothes that might be missed on the first try.

Thorny necklace. Thorny hair. Ick.
For example - we had some teal chinos in the front display. If you want a challenge, try selling teal chinos to middle-aged men in an upper-middle-class shopping center anchored by a grocery store. Yeah. It's not even as easy as it sounds. In fact, most customers who come in the door comment on how really terrible it would be to have to wear teal chinos - somewhere between "get a haircut like Miley Cyrus" and "listen to Miley Cyrus."

One day, though, a customer approached the teal chinos, and said, "well look at those!" This is, of course, a trick phrase. It could be followed (with equal plausibility) by either "they're great!" or "I just threw up in my mouth!" So, I replied with an equally tricky "Mmm!" He then asked "so what could you wear these with?"

Not exactly my high school experience.
Curses. He was interested. And, having not grown up on the East Coast, I couldn't answer the "how-would-a-grown-man-wear-some-very-preppy-summer-vacation-pants" question with a whole lot of confidence. So, I bluffed. "Well, it's like a blue jean, but with more spunk! So, theoretically, you could wear them with a whole bunch of stuff." One of my coworkers shot me a look of "did-you-really-just-try-to-sell-a-straight-man-some-teal-pants-by-appealing-to-their-spunk?" and I knew that my bluffing maybe wasn't as convincing as it sounded in my head.

In Charles Murray's excellent book Coming Apart (which I'm reviewing this summer) one of his key ingredients for American virtue is honesty. Now, he doesn't specifically address the gray (or teal, as it were) areas in which salesmen sometimes find themselves, but he stresses the importance of honesty in building trust and community. If honesty builds trust, trust builds reliability, and reliability means you're able to get to know your neighbors, which builds community. This has all sorts of positive benefits for society, and creates a flywheel for civic involvement. How does Murray measure honesty, you ask? Disability claims.

"Owwww! I can never work again!"
See, American workplaces have gotten infinitely safer in the last 50 years. Not only are more people in cushy "white collar" jobs (pick me!), but blue collar workplaces have better equipment and safeguards than ever before. So why, in such a safe working environment, have disability claims risen? Murray points to a general decline in honesty in American culture. Fudging the numbers, making up white lies, or trying to "work the system" have all contributed to a culture that's more willing to apply for a faulty disability claim ... or sell some really terrible teal pants.

Murray's classification of honesty as one of the chief American virtues makes sense, considering our tradition of free markets and limited government. If people are going to be free to do as they please, they need to be the sort of people who don't need constant policing. In other words, they need virtue - and honesty is virtue in one of its most basic forms. If honesty is on the decline in the US (as Murray demonstrates), we must ask ourselves whether it is better to rule a dishonest people with an iron fist or a caressing hand - and either option spells doom (the handwriting just looks a little different). The thought of America without honesty (or any of its other chief virtues: industriousness, marriage, and religiosity) is a terrible thought. Even more terrible than teal chinos.

I bluffed my way through prepville in:

Black below-the-knee pencil skirt, cobalt blue blouse with bow neck, blue and silver earrings, black and silver watch, silver cocktail ring, and black pumps.

*Gee whiz - that's a clunky word. I'm going to refer to myself as a salesman from now on, because I still believe in the inclusivity of the word "man." "Man" can mean humanity-at-large in English, because we don't have a gender-neutral pronoun except "it" (which we've all agreed only applies to demonic clowns). So don't yell at me for my moderately outdated but elegant and inclusive usage choices, please. 

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