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Why Speed, Efficiency, and Convenience are Dehumanizing Values to Live By

Speed and Efficiency

Two values that American culture (officially) holds in high esteem are speed and efficiency.1

We agree that speed and efficiency are vitally important goals to have for the hospital emergency room, the fire department, and other first responders. But how do they work for the rest of us in our everyday lives?

To answer this question let’s first look at the alternative state of daily life that exists for many of us: plodding and futile. No one explains the everyday life of Americans better than anthropologist Edward Twitchell Hall Jr.:

“Is there anything more frustrating than being unable to make things work? I am thinking of the child struggling to tie his shoes, or the agony of the man who has suffered a stroke, striving to make himself understood, to get change out of his pocket, or even to feed himself. Equally frustrating though not quite so obvious are the common, everyday problems people face such as… failure to progress in school or on the job or to control the social system of which one is a part. In these circumstances, life turns from an ego-expanding, joyous process to a shriveled, shadow world hardly worth the effort.

“In American culture, depending on our philosophical orientation, we blame such failures or either the individual or the social system. Seldom do we… entertain the notion that there might be something wrong with the design of our institutions or the manner in which the personality and the culture mesh….”2

A culture such as ours, which seems addicted to speed and efficiency, has no convenient place for people who are dazed and confused, who slow the pace of productivity, question the quick, efficient (if not effective) solution to any and all problems, or delay the immediate gratification of consumers’ desires. Oh, did I mention that speed and efficiency are business-based values?3

I first became aware of the dehumanization that speed and efficiency have on everyday human interactions while waiting in a checkout line at a discount grocery store that had no butchers, other specialty clerks, or grocery baggers.4 It was probably in the 1970s when barcode scanners were becoming more widely used locally. I watched as the cashier efficiently slid one item after another past the scanner, not once looking up at the customer. Finally, when it came time to pay, the cashier realized that she knew the customer personally. Embarrassed, the cashier apologized in case she had done anything rude to the customer (the cashier not being conscious enough to know). The customer assured her that she had not. I thought, “What could be more rude to another person than to ignore their humanity?” From the quadrune mind perspective, the cashier did not acknowledge the customer as a fellow human being because she, herself, was working as part of an “automatonic”5 scanner system—performing a repetitive, reptilian-minded behavior—until she recognized the woman as a friend—an emotional, old mammalian tribal reaction.

Our dehumanization of each other occurs daily, arising from our overvaluation of speed and efficiency. I noticed, again in a grocery store checkout line, how people seemed self-righteously entitled to make signs of impatience toward an older gentleman who was slow to complete his purchase. The minute or two delay he caused them was enough to justify intentional, overt belittlement of him with their eye rolling, sighing, and shuffling of feet.

Life-threatening “road rage” can be “caused” by a driver in front of us going “slowly,” even if they are driving at the posted speed limit. Going even a few miles per hour below our internal “set point” of the speed that “feels right” is enough to set off our habituated reptilian mind to react as though we are being seriously delayed on our urgent mission to… wherever. Or, as Yogi Berra declared with reassurance, “We may be lost but we’re making good time.” 

Convenience

“Convenience” is another effectually dehumanizing, business-related value we have adopted as our inalienable right. After all, haven’t we been told about Medicare/Medicaid benefits, skin care lotions, and everything else that is on the market that we are just getting all that we deserve? We really believe it’s normal that the world should provide us with what we want when we want it, twenty-four hours a day with a minimum of inconvenience. It occurred to me, though, that the real “convenience” of 24-hour convenience stores,6 for example, was not for our benefit because we “deserve it,” but to make it more convenient for the businesses to separate money from the customer. Now we have convenient access to 24-hour instant shopping by home television networks, computers, and “smart” phones.

Along with speed and efficiency, the business value of “convenience” has invaded all aspects of civilian life. In fact, convenience has become an essential by-product of our business-compliant lifestyle. It gives us hope that we will successfully navigate the day—as long as nothing inconveniently unexpected happens. After all, if everything we do is predicated on being speedy and efficient, then when would we have time for the qualities of life that require (much) more time and effort to develop and preserve, like learning to live well with each other? (Additionally, this time and effort would make us less available for shopping.) It’s much speedier, more efficient, and more convenient, at least in the short run,7 to just hate and avoid each other. It turns out that speedy, efficient, convenient living is faster than the speed of human life.

Conclusion

All behavior that is driven by a “need” for speed, efficiency, and convenience carries with it a physiological sense of urgency (like needing a bathroom), whether we’re doing something “urgent” or not. This is true even if it’s something that is really time consuming and labor intensive, requiring an extended amount of patience. For example, many Americans believe that speed, efficiency, and convenience should apply to creating intimacy, solving personal problems, raising children, constructing a civil society, ending poverty, ending bigotry, and ending hunger. If it can’t be done in a speedy and efficient manner, then there must be something wrong with everyone else, because we deserve a better world! Through repetitive propaganda and personal choices, the behavioral brain gets the message that speed, efficiency, and convenience are among our Highest Goods, which are far more important than respect for human beings who are slow and infirm, especially if they’re in the checkout line ahead of us.

  1. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, from its “Effective Use of Time” section of “SO YOU’RE AN AMERICAN?”: A GUIDE TO ANSWERING DIFFICULT  QUESTIONS ABROAD website: “Americans, in relation to other cultures, are obsessed with time. Time is closely controlled and measured and should be ‘planned’ and ‘used wisely.’ Being late for a meeting is viewed as disrespectful. The concept of time itself is taught to U.S. citizens early on. Even in grade school it is drilled into children as one of their first lessons, since many tasks and activities are timed.

    However, many people say U.S. citizens do not know how to relax.”The following quotation is from the “Use of Time” section in an older version of the State Department’s website: “Time, and its cousins efficiency and speed, have generated an American fascination with and dependence on services such as fast food, express package delivery, product expiration dates, and speed dating. Email and cellphones offer features for auto-fill-in and speed dialing. Digital (not analog) clocks and watches proclaim ever-more precise declarations of the hour.” [This document also provides answers to cultural questions with the peculiarly American valuations of independence, equality, individualism, democracy, nationalism, meritocracy, directness, innovation, consumerism, informality, as well as efficient use of time. As with all résumés, potential deficiencies are here presented as strengths].

  2. Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Quotes and reference pages are from the online text

    “Remember, it is possible to live life with no knowledge of physiology, speak a language well without knowing linguistics or even schoolteachers’ grammar, or use  a TV set, a telephone, and an automobile without a clue to electronic or mechanical know-how. It is also possible to grow up… in a culture with little or no knowledge of the basic laws that make it work and differentiate it from all other cultures.

    “Cultures, however, are extraordinarily complex, much more than TV sets, automobiles, or possibly even human physiology. So how does one go about learning the underlying structure of culture?… [O]ne is [to be] consistent in what is being observed…. matters such as material culture, business institutions, marriage and the family, social organization, language, even the military (all armies bear the stamp of their culture), sex…, and the law. These activities and many more besides reflect and are reflected in culture” (pages 105-106). 

    [Hall goes on to examine in depth how the larger, “low context,” American culture has shaped the legal system “in which it is extraordinarily difficult to guarantee that the proceedings can be linked to real life (page 106). For Hall’s use of “context,” see Chapter 1, “The Paradox of Culture,” Chapter 6, “Context and Meaning,” Chapter 7, “Contexts, High and Low,” and Chapter 8, “Why Context?”

    [The U.S. State Department implicitly notes in the new version of the “Directness” section of its GUIDE (see footnote #1) that the United States is a “low context” culture in the same meaning as it is used by Hall in Beyond Culture: “In communication and actions, most Americans believe that a straightforward and direct approach is the best way to ensure that a message is sent and received correctly. Meaning is carried mostly by the words and much less so by contextual clues such as the relative hierarchical position of speaker and listener and where the communication takes place.]

    “Professionals often value direct feedback and authenticity over concerns for a relationship as a means to attain efficiency. In other cultures, this can often be perceived as rude” [emphasis added].

    [The following quotation is from the “Directness” section of the older version of the State Department’s website]. “American professionals appreciate honesty and authenticity as a means to productivity and efficiency. Meaning is carried mostly by the words and much less so by contextual clues such as relative hierarchical position of the speaker and listener and where the communication takes place…. Conversely, Americans may consider indirect or subtler forms of communication to be incomplete, dishonest, or insincere…. 

    “Roots of this communication style may spring from a task orientation, where the primary purpose of communication is to identify the goal and all the attending elements needed to attain that goal. Relationships are built in the process. Cultures with a relationship orientation [high context] prefer to first establish trust with their counterparts, and then through that solid relationship carry out their tasks.”

    [The older State Department website is currently inaccessible, but the newer version has a helpful section on “context”: CROSS-CULTURAL COMMUNICATION: Context is EverythingCommunicating in High- and Low-context Cultures]. “The differences between high-context and low-context cultures is one of the most challenging things to navigate and one of the most important and distinct differences that exists across cultures. Having a firm grasp on what constitutes high- and low-context, particularly in a communication setting, will truly help you better understand each interaction you experience.”

    [Hall pays tribute in Beyond Culture to the U. S. State Department, where he worked for a time, for its conceptual development of cultural “frames” as an aid to learning a foreign language]. “{Frames are} the smallest viable unit of a culture that can be analyzed, taught, transmitted, and handed down as a complete entity…. 

    “Pioneering work in this field was successfully carried out in such places as the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State” (pages 129-130).  See our post, QM and the Future of Spiritual Consciousness for other quotes from Hall’s book].

  3. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, from its older version of the “Efficient Use of Time” section of “SO YOU’RE AN AMERICAN?”: A GUIDE TO ANSWERING DIFFICULT QUESTIONS ABROAD: “Whereas before people worked on their own farms or in their small shops, now they had to be coordinated to work in large numbers and in specified shifts. Determining and adhering to schedules is still highly valued in professional life. This focus on time has allowed American business and industry to become highly productive, further reinforces the orientation to the future, and helps ensure customer satisfaction.” [In the State Department’s newer version “Efficient Use of Time” has been changed to “Effective Use of Time,” but I think the older version is both more accurate and honest. Emphases added].
  4. Eschner, K. (2017, September 6). The bizarre story of Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store: What’s in a name? “[An] enthusiastic greeting was necessary because Saunders was trying something completely new. Before Piggly Wiggly, groceries were sold at stores where a clerk would assemble your order for you, weighing out dry goods from large barrels. Even chain stores used clerks.” [This represents an early demise of human interaction opportunities, especially if the shoppers and clerks had mutual social connections].
  5. Mirriam-Webster. (2021). automaton noun

    au·​tom·​a·​ton | \ ȯ-ˈtä-mə-tən  , -mə-ˌtän \

    plural automatons or automata\ ȯ-​ˈtä-​mə-​tə  , -​mə-​ˌtä \

    Definition of automaton

    1: a mechanism that is relatively self-operating especiallyROBOT

    2: a machine or control mechanism designed to follow automatically a predetermined sequence of operations or respond to encoded instructions

    3: an individual who acts in a mechanical fashion // He is an unfeeling automaton.[People acting from the reptilian mind go through well-established repetitious patterns of behavior at a sub-emotional and sub-intellectual (cognitive) level of consciousness. Definition 3 applies to the cashier not only as functioning unemotionally, but also unthinkingly].

  6. See Anzilotti, E. (2016, February 1). A Brief history of the 24-hour convenience storeRemembering a time when bacon, egg, and cheeses were not available round-the-clock. Bloomberg CityLab.
  7. A phrase that implies our life is a series of daily sprints rather than a lifetime hike

2 replies on “Why Speed, Efficiency, and Convenience are Dehumanizing Values to Live By”

Thank you for sharing an informative and enlightening perspective on speed and efficiency. Your examples of waiting in lines were very effective.

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