Saturday, February 27, 2016

Casual Acquaintance

To say that we've become more casual in every aspect of our lives is to understate the trend. It's most apparent in the clothes we wear, especially to go to the "office." Yes, you see business suits on lawyers and bankers: money and justice are both still serious businesses. However, once you step outside the domains of finance and the law, it gets pretty laid back. For many, khakis and open collared shirts are not business casual, but business normal. And in the tech world, it goes further: jeans and tee shirts are the fatigues of the work-a-day solider, augmented by dress uniforms for official occasions of black turtlenecks (thank you, Steve Jobs) or hoodies (likewise to you, Mark Zuckerberg).

But clothing is only the most visible evidence of this movement to be more chummy and relaxed. You see it in writing, whether in the abbreviations and 140 character formulations that appear on social media. You see it in business, where companies are organized and run out of not just a garage, but out of a rented cubicle on a laptop. And you see it in relationships, where people are "friended" by those who are barely acquaintances, and "endorsed" by people who have no idea of your actual competencies.

Then there's commerce, an area where there was traditionally a respectful hierarchy between peddler and buyer. That's not to say that shop owners didn't get to know their customers and their specific tastes and needs; indeed, the successful ones did exactly that. But while you might get to know you butcher, your pharmacist or your dry cleaner, you didn't generally hang out with him or her. Not that they weren't hangable-outable-with. It was just the relationship was something different, and your encounters were more likely transactionally based.

That meant that interactions often started with "How can I help you, sir?" or "Is there something I can get for you, m'aam?" And while our obsession with youth has meant that the phraseology frequently omits the final generic honorific so as not to make even the most advanced among us feel old, those formulations are still the preferred forms of approach from server to served.

So I was a little confused when I got an email structured like it came from an old friend. If you're like me, when you first log in, you quickly separate the wheat from the chafe. We all get multiple sales offers and come-ons from sellers both old and new, but they are usually identifiable in .0325 seconds, roughly the time it takes to sweep them into the delete pile.  

This one had the phrase "Checking In" in the subject line, a phrase I frequently use with friends and clients. The sender had both a first and last name, and the domain was a string of initials, followed by the ubiquitous dot com. While it was not immediately recallable, neither was it a red flag: I wish I remembered every person I correspond with by their email handle, but that's not the case. So it avoided the group sweep into the trash that I routinely do first thing in the morning.

And so I opened the email to see what was up. The first line was personal in a familiar way: "Hi there. Hope you're doing great. I just wanted to check-in and see how everything was going." Could have been from my college roommate, my sister with whom I hadn't talked for a bit, or an old associate about to swing through town and wanting to catch a drink. But alas, it was not so: "We've got some pretty fancy algorithms here at Harry's that tell me that you may be running low on razor blades. If you would like to order more, you can always do so at" It went on to offer contact info, and concluded as chummy as it started: "I look forward to keeping in touch. All the best, Katie."

Now, Katie, I'm sure you're a nice person. I actually do like your blades. It's nice of you to pretend you know me. But let me be blunt: we don't have a relationship. Of any type. Never have, never will. So stop trying to be my friend. Or to paraphrase the former Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Benson: I know a Katie. Katie is a friend of mine. And you're no Katie.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't assume everyone is his friend. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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