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Andrew Sullivan Is Wrong: Fawning Service Is Not an American Virtue

My latest TRB column for the print magazine is about the incursion of "emotional labor" into low-wage sectors where it doesn’t belong. The piece has received some criticism from readers who don’t endorse my distinction between routine courteousness ("service with a smile"), which a boss has every right to expect, and the more fawning behavior demanded by cultish employers like Pret A Manger, which gives me the creeps. I’ve seen no reason to reply to most of these criticisms because I recognize that people draw in different ways the line between friendliness and servility, which after all is subjective. It never occurred to me that anyone would argue that no such line exists, or ought to exist. 

But that’s what Andrew Sullivan is arguing—not so much in his initial posting (which accuses me of "the kind of lefty condescension that drives me up the wall") as in a reply to a reader who defended my piece. Here is what Sullivan wrote:

You have every right to patronize only those establishments that do not require their employees to be polite or accommodating or fawning. And the more people who do that, the quicker things will change. But obviously, you’re in a minority. Most people enjoy fawning treatment when being asked to spend money. What always struck me about America was the ubiquity of that ethic and how much more agreeable the consumer process was here. It was an actual virtue inculcated by capitalism.

What always struck Sullivan about America was the ubiquity of fawning treatment? Fawning is a virtue inculcated by capitalism? Not mere politeness, or accommodation, but fawning

My first impulse is to remember that Sullivan is deadly serious when he calls himself a conservative. This is not a kind of conservatism you encounter very often in the United States. Most American conservatives who defend income inequality, for instance, would never defend social inequality. It's generally understood, even on the American right, that bowing and scraping have no rightful place in a democratic society.

Sullivan is saying something different. He's saying bowing and scraping do have a place, and that being on the receiving end of it is quite pleasurable. If Andrew were some high-born British ninny, I could understand his spouting such nonsense, but he is not. I don't get it. Maybe I just caught him on an off day—which is something, by the way, that Pret employees aren't allowed to have.