Everyone loves a good story about some hipster storming back into a Starbucks store to complain that they messed up his drink. The best stories are the ones where the guy gets so over-the-top indignant that it’s almost Instagram-worthy. The video will look great about four rows above that photo of the grande caramel macchiato with almond milk and no whipped crème (pronounced with a trill of the ‘R’ and without a hint of diphthong or irony), and three rows above a similar photo with your name misspelled because isn’t it soooo ironic? (You’re right, it’s not.) It’s funny, but hey, you’re not complaining about it like that guy was, right?
We love hearing stories about people who overreact because they make us feel sane. If we can all agree that that dude is horrible, we don’t feel so horrible. But what we might not understand fully is that that guy’s drink isn’t just a drink. It’s who he is. His Starbucks drink is part of his identity.
I’m nowhere near saying that someone’s overreaction over a mistake is justifiable. Rather, I’m considering what the overreaction means for every one of us who live on this side of culture. There used to be a time when your identity had to do with what tribe you were a part of. You didn’t compete with people in your tribe to stand out. Everything you did was for the good of everyone else. That was your identity. Everyone had a name, but the important name was the name of your father. That’s not the case for many of us anymore. In Japan (another consumer culture), fewer and fewer people are getting married or even getting into relationships because why be concerned with bettering yourself for another person? Shopping can’t dump you. Tribes are primitive, and we live in a time in which the individual is elevated over the group. Be yourself. Be unique. Buy my stuff.
Yeah, our individualism is so closely connected with our consumer culture they’re practically the same thing. Why do all those Apple products start with an ‘I’? It’s because they are mine. No two iPhones have the same apps, no two Chipotle burritos look the same (but they can both fit in my stomach please), and no two caramel macchiatos have the same fixin’s. Everything is customizable because that’s what sells. We’re not just buying products; we are buying identities.
Think about a name. My name is Ben, but a name is so arbitrary. I didn’t choose my name. It’s just a symbol for me. In fact, it’s a symbol shared by thousands of other people who are absolutely nothing like me. But my name is so closely tied to my identity that when someone forgets my name, I feel a little hurt. Just a little.
Society is culture, and our culture is heavily consumerist. So when our sense of individualism comes from what we consume, our identities become what we consume. That’s why Facebook publishes things we “like”. We “like” certain products, brands, musicians, and movies because we are also products and brands of them. We want to communicate who we are to others externally, quickly, and easily, so we buy symbols to represent ourselves. It makes it easier for others to stereotype and categorize us.
What’s so wrong with this? Well, it makes us jerks to people serving our coffee, but we’re also objectifying ourselves, and when it comes to this day and age, objectifying people sucks. It’s great that we’re starting realize how often we do it, but the more we’re aware of it, the more we also ignore it. By identifying ourselves with objects, we make ourselves objects. We can basically window-shop for relationships because only those who represent the right brands are worthy of our time. Sounds like we’re pretty hopeless for any change, doesn’t it. Seems almost silly to even try.
So when the Starbucks barista screws up that hipster’s coffee, it’s not just an innocent mistake. It’s an unforgivable attack on the poor guy’s identity. So thanks a lot, barista. And you want minimum wage raised.