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Pizza Shop Guy, Donut Shop Guy, and Little Old Me

Eating takeout food frequently is not a good thing to do, experts agree. 

Fine, I won’t quibble too much with this. But that doesn’t prevent takeout from being an excellent source of research on the culture of work and the staying power of bourgeois values in America.

I offer to you, then, Pizza Shop Guy and Donut Shop Guy. Roughly the same age and both total strangers to me, they are exemplars of two very different approaches to the culture of work in America 2021.

Pizza Shop Guy is clean shaven and courteous, crisply dressed and meticulously attentive. He calls me ‘sir’ consistently. He asks me, as he hands me my pizza, if I need napkins and if I desire a receipt. He makes eye contact as we speak and smiles readily. He seems genuinely pleased to be interacting with me and with being part of the broader project of making pizzas for people.

The pizza he and his fellows prepared for my family was excellent (though, admittedly, not as healthy as a plain kale salad). I don’t know what was in his mind, of course, so I don’t discount the possibility that this could have all been a polished, practiced façade. But the appearance was as I have described, and I daresay its effect on me was what it would likely be on almost any customer: Pizza Guy made me happy to be doing business with him and his establishment, and I look forward to doing so again.

Donut Shop Guy, by contrast, is scruffy and unshaven with long unkempt hair. His dress uniform is unbuttoned and looks smudged and dirty. He has many visible tattoos and at least one body piercing on his eyebrow. He is sullen and uncommunicative in passing me my coffee and sandwich, saying as little as possible, just the amount of my purchase and nothing more. He does not smile even once and he never looks directly at me.

The distinct impression he gives is that he would like to be anywhere but where he is, and he would rather be doing anything else on earth instead of dealing with me. When I arrive home and examine my purchase, I discover that my sandwich is burned black on one side, something no attentive packager of the product could conceivably have missed. Though he has thereby, surely inadvertently, done me the service of sparing me the insalubrious caloric content of the sandwich, I made a mental note not to stop at his shop again.

One might be tempted to see these two types solely in terms of economic impact for the businesses involved. It stands to reason that if both businesses hired only people like the two I encountered, it is overwhelmingly likely that the bottom line of the pizza shop would be considerably better than that of the donut shop, as most people will probably share both my preference for dealing with Pizza Shop Guy and my eagerness to avoid Donut Shop Guy.

But narrow economic concerns are not all that is at issue here. One can look at these types as indicators of broad probable life outcomes for both individuals, and as two competing models for how a culture might desire to shape its members.

Amy Wax and Larry Alexander got into trouble with our elite cultural moguls and institutions a few years ago for scandalously suggesting that what they described as bourgeois values provide a good behavioral framework for anyone seeking life success in American society. What are these controversial values? In their summary:

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

Note that a few of these speak directly to my example: “Work hard…[and] go the extra mile for your employer or client.” Pizza Shop Guy adheres to this cultural blueprint with firm precision. Donut Shop Guy? Yeah, not so much.

We do not know how things will turn out long-term for these two, but it isn’t hard to set up a thought experiment in which you imagine that each continues to follow the work values model demonstrated in his behavior with me on the day I observed him for the next 20 years or so. Do you think there might be differences in how and where the two end up? Who do you think does better? And who do you think our culture would do better to try to make a general model for others to imitate? Be honest.

This is not difficult stuff, folks. Of course, Pizza Shop Guy does better, and of course a culture filled with Pizza Shop Guys is a better culture than one filled with Donut Shop Guys.

Only the kind of relativist inanity that was behind the criticism of Wax and Alexander could manage to so twist itself up in ideological distortion as to fail to see this obvious truth.

Alexander Riley

Alexander Riley is a professor of sociology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

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