Power

Why everyone wants to speak to the manager

The political disposition behind the meme.

Power

Why everyone wants to speak to the manager

The political disposition behind the meme.
Power

Why everyone wants to speak to the manager

The political disposition behind the meme.

Everywhere I go, someone is asking to see a manager.

The world is a giant coffee shop and everywhere I turn, someone is convinced their cappuccino hasn’t got enough espresso.

The world is an endless restaurant and with every step I take, I walk past someone calling the waitress over to tell her that their steak isn’t well done enough, and really the chef ought to do them a new one.

The world is one vast supermarket and I can’t sleep at night, because through the walls all I can hear is the thunderous rage of someone at the check-out, complaining that their expired 3-for-2 coupon ought to be valid.

I’m not the only one to notice. There is a meme about asking to “speak to the manager,” and certainly you have come across the phrase. As Rob Dozier points out in Slate, the meme is an attempt to name a “specific kind of entitlement,” embodied in (for instance) this infamous video of a woman yelling in an Apple Store.

According to Dozier, this entitlement is very definitely racialized, and possibly also gendered — it is associated in particular with richer, white women (although the more I think about it, the more I envision the ultimate manager-requester as Dennis from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, burning with the pure rage of the golden god). The manager-requester demands that every one of their interactions be as smooth as possible, that they will always be given exactly what they want, promptly and with due deference from everyone around them. If the manager-requester is denied this, they are fully prepared to kick up an almighty fuss — no matter how debasing this might be, to themselves and everyone else involved.

This entitlement will, I imagine, be familiar to anyone who has ever done service work. My partner used to manage an upmarket chain pizza restaurant which was... pretty much exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find manager-requester in droves. The stories she used to tell me about it... I don’t know where exactly you’d locate the depths of human depravity, but I think I’d be inclined to do so there. She told me tales of a middle-class mother taking it upon themselves to completely ruin both her family’s and the restaurant staff's night just because the chef happened to make her pizza the wrong size. There were well-to-do-suburban couples getting their orders slightly mixed up and then lining garlic-marinated olives up on the radiator to stink the restaurant out in protest, and ladies who lunch lying and bullying their way to truly heroic quantities of free wine. Shitty, petty behavior driven by no particular reason at all, other than wanting to make someone who earns less money than them feel small.

But the power of the “Can I speak to the manager” meme is a curious one. On the one hand, memes of white women yelling in stores or calling the police on black kids selling water go viral because this behavior is grimly fascinating and horrible. But there’s more to it. I think there’s something here goes beyond mere entitlement. Asking to see the manager — the specific act of asking to see the manager, racialized and gendered as per the above — is just one manifestation of a conception of political authority that runs across society in general.

There is a certain logic to this understanding: The manager-requester is the “normal” private individual, the citizen or voter in a liberal democracy. He is the white, materially well-off subject that our political institutions have been built for and around, whether explicitly or implicitly. Let’s call him Jonathan. The manager is the powers-that-be, the government. The service staff are worthless underlings, the underprivileged others, the non-Jonathans (nonathans). These people are, perhaps, necessary for the orderly running of society — but on at least some level, our Jonathan thinks it would be good if they weren’t, so that he would have a direct link to the manager. And this would be nice since the manager is, fundamentally, on his side. If only the manager could be called down to the shop floor, they would almost definitely see things his way, and give him what he wants. But currently this is only possible if he yells and screams at the service staff as much as possible. The more Jonathan is short and mean with the service staff, the more likely he is to get through to the manager, and be given his way.

The “Can I speak to the manager” meme allows us to grasp this logic — and once you’ve seen it, it becomes impossible, Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon-style, not to spot it all the time. The phenomenon of “snitch-tagging” on social media. The idea that an article on a given issue has to be shared because the “Mainstream Media” won’t report on it otherwise. The delusion that if we “debate” racists, fascists, and transphobes we can get them to see the error of their ways. “Blue-tick guys” tweeting endlessly at Donald Trump about the dignity of the office of President. The whole smug style of American liberalism, come to think of it, which treats the institutions of American governance as unassailably good — if only all those idiots would vote for the right people. Brett Kavanaugh, yelling and crying at his senate committee hearing because it’s just so unfair that a sexual assault allegation could cost a large, beer-loving boy his promotion. The “manager” in question here might be different: It might be a literal manager, it might be the government, it might (as in the debating bigots example) be Reason itself. But in their various ways, all of these actions display the belief that if the manager did come, he would, pretty much immediately, sort everything out for the askers.

The theory can probably be further extended to the idea that the liberal-democratic state is the Great Manager, which is capable of correcting any problems in the great shop that is society, just by passing the right laws — that in a democracy, we can just all tell them to pass...

But this is just not how political authority really works. The state is not benevolent, and it is not separate and distinct from the problems that it deals with. Even if you could get through to “the powers that be,” they almost certainly would not — or could not — sort out the problems you’ve identified. Political problems are not like a member of staff getting your order wrong: the people running things have no particular interest in your happiness or otherwise; you are not in a position to withhold their tip. If you’re fundamentally dissatisfied with your lot in life, it’s probably because it’s in their economic interest that you should be — this is what it looks like when these “managerial” institutions are working correctly, not when they’re failing.

While the Jonathans of the world are perhaps just recently waking up to this fact, service industry workers have known for ages that there’s no common cause with the boss. To really get what we want out of life, we need to purge ourselves of the delusion that some benevolent authority is likely to deliver it to us. The Manager won’t help us, so why even get them involved to begin with? Instead, the only option is to stand in solidarity with others, and work together to change things from below. Call it “conspiring with the barista.”

Tom Whyman is a writer and philosopher from the UK.
Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.