Conversation in Commerce: Intimate, Impersonal, and Indirect

Featured Image is The Moneylender and His Wife, by Quentin Massys.

The offering of a schilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so as it is for his interest.

-Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence

In a post two years ago, Nathan distinguished transaction and exchange based on the impersonal quality of the former and the conversational quality of the latter. He gave grocery stores as an example of the transactional, and farmer’s markets for the conversational.

In many grocery stores the shopper can select, check, bag, and pay for the groceries without ever having to speak to another person. Where is the catallaxy in that? You do not make friends with your celery and dog food. Grocery shopping is about cost primarily, because your choices have already been laid out for you. We may trade off a store with a better selection for one with lower prices, but in that context we have already made our choice in choosing where to shop, and all that is left is cost. The transactional context contains risk that can be managed, but is devoid of uncertainty.

At the less structured farmer’s market, however:

In exchange there is possibility of alteration of preferences. You go to the farmer’s market for the experience, and fresh tomatoes. But you never know what else might show up at the farmer’s market. It is fraught with uncertainty. It is also steeped in conversation. The very context suggests that one approaches it wanting to have her preferences shaped by the experience. Sellers get intimately involved in each sale, talking with every customer and potential customer. Advice is given and recipes are shared.

I think Nathan is onto something here, but I also think that both settings are conversational, in an important sense.

It might be better to say that the wider context for each is conversational, in a variety of ways.

At a grocery store, the manner in which choices are laid out for shoppers is neither random nor entirely about cost saving. These strategically designed layouts create what Michel Anteby calls vocal silence; though no explicit direction is given, specific choices suggest themselves.

It’s true that at the grocery store these suggestions often emphasize cost saving, as with the placards indicating discounts or stands emphasizing some particular bargain. But the basic arrangement of items in aisle suggests a relationship among them. When I go to get ketchup, I might see mustard and suddenly remember we’re running low on it. Little things like that.

Providers and retailers spend a lot of time attempting to anticipate their customers. Sometimes this is simple cost saving, again—if things are organized in an intuitive way, it’ll take me less time to find them. But an important part of it is figuring out what innovations (however small) customers would be amenable to.

Adam Smith’s point about the shilling at the top of this post should be kept in view; money talks. But money talks very indirectly.  It doesn’t tell providers much more than that people were willing to pay a certain price for something. Market research isn’t as intimate as chatting with someone you see every week at a farmer’s market, but it is more direct than simply watching sales figures. We might call this style of conversation impersonalTens of billions of dollars are spent on it each year.

The conversational styles are continuously generated through transactions and exchange by establishing what Charles Taylor has called “footings” for the participants on each side.

 In the way we exchange, talk to one another, treat one another, we establish and then continue or alter the terms of our relationship, what we might call the “footing” on which we stand to each other. We do this through our rhetoric, our tone of voice, the kind of remark I permit myself and you don’t challenge, and on through an infinity of nuances.

Let’s say we are friends, but I am older than you. I can respond to this by treating you as an ingénue, offering avuncular advice on frequent occasions, sometimes intervening in a bossy fashion, dismissing peremptorily some of your ideas, and so on. You for your part don’t challenge this; you may even like it. The upshot is that what I call a certain “footing” gets set up, call it an uncle-nephew footing, in which we each have certain expectations of the other, in which certain moves are normal and expected, and others are surprising, even shocking, and in which certain obligations are implied on each of our parts, and the like.

The footings in the conversation between market researchers and their subject are that of detached analysts on the one hand and subjects of study on the other. Though the latter are there voluntarily, the authority of the former is established from the outset. Researchers control the structure of the engagement. The degree of freedom subjects are allowed is limited, and determined in advance by researchers.

At Nathan’s farmer’s market, the representatives of the farm establish the footing of experts and salesmen, but also something like an acquaintance. The tone of the conversation is more casual.

The grocery store strives to make conversation as indirect as possible. They may conduct market research, and the providers of the goods they sell certainly do, but once in the store all they want to hear from their customers is the sound of their wallets emptying. In as much as there is a footing here, it is established through vocal silence. And customers respond primarily through their buying patterns.

This has been given its ultimate expression in our day through online retail. Amazon sets itself up as the website of choice for ordering what you want as quickly, cheaply, and painlessly as possible. There seems to be no human element at all. But of course, there is. Amazon is constantly listening to their customers. Vocal silence is created algorithmically, on the fly, and those algorithms are constantly being evaluated by people. New business prospects are experimented with on a smaller scale before being deployed to the general customer base or abandoned.

Even at its most indirect and impersonal, commerce is a series of ongoing conversations, establishing, challenging, and altering various footings on each side along the way.

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One thought on “Conversation in Commerce: Intimate, Impersonal, and Indirect

  1. Nice points here. What you’re calling voiceless conversation I would just call “bigger audience” conversation or something. Aggregating voices requires either letting a specific person represent the group, or breaking what they’re saying down into abstract categories that can be conveyed as One Voice. That might get done with prices, statistics, and other forms of counting, information that can then be concatenated with operations like addition and multiplication. That might get done (as often happens in market research) with a focus group or guided interviews with representative members of groups. But I think you’re right to note that there isn’t NO conversation in a “transactional” environment just a DIFFERENT MEDIUM of conversation.

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