I walked into the room and laughed. Not at anyone in particular; it’s just that it was filled with ads. Like Times Square squeezed into an apartment. From massive, gaudy, 1000-watt billboards, to little handwritten signs on paper. But I didn’t seem out of place because they were all laughing too — at someone’s joke, at the weather (“it poured for, like, a full five seconds”), or at the story of someone getting drunk (“plastered”).
One of those billboards slid up to me, LCD screen on maximum brightness. “Good to see you! Want to get a drink?”
I chuckled. “Not exactly. I can still taste this morning’s hangover.”
I’ll walk around and check out what’s on offer, and maybe I’ll stay if there’s someone interesting. But first, nature calls.
Why these toilets are so small, no one knows. It’s as if the interior designers decided that claustrophobic stress will help people pee faster. I fasten my belt, wash my hands and look up to check my reflection in the mirror.
A big red sign on a human neck looks back at me. On it is scribbled, without much flair or care, “ON SALE”.
I recently got a 1-star review on Instagram and it’s really hurting my brand image. I think my other ad channels are doing fine, but I haven’t really been replying quick enough on Messenger so my post-purchase service isn’t too great either. Well at least I don’t leave customers on read.
I was swiping through Tinder the other day and noticed that overall market value is really going up; seems like all my competitors are hiring professional photographers and brand managers. How am I supposed to sell myself with the market so saturated?
The sell-cializing business is really getting tough. Back in the day you’d make some good friendship deals just by showing up — now you need to ‘make an impression’ by having ten hobbies and a strong jawline. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining (negativity is a huge turn-off for potential customers, especially the ones who think a yoga mat is the same as a personality).
I’m just saying, this whole ‘customer’ age is making friend-shopping too demanding. We were all produced pretty much the same by outsourced labor (‘parents’, they call them) but my customers keep expecting me to be some special, flawless tech marvel. They tend to forget that the bullshit that they see on my Facebook wall are just ads.
Well, tonight I’m at an industry conference (a ‘party’, they call them) to try to redeem my reputation after that horrid review. Seriously, all I did was miss one Instagram DM.
I walk out of the bathroom, and the walls tremble under the weight of the booming bass. It’s a remix of Macklemore’s Thrift Shop. Well, I guess the party isn’t all that bad.
But I’ve also got only twenty more minutes to spare before my next shopping run on Snapchat, so I’d better hurry up and hunt before all the good deals are snatched up. There’s a group smack in the center of the room — tall, square-jawed men (the thinner ones all have beards) and smoky-eyed women. Display-window, front-row stuff. None of them had price tags, though, and that’s when you know they’re out of your pay grade.
Oh well. Maybe one day, when more people buy me, I’ll be able to afford them.
In the furthest corner in the room hangs the clearance rack. A couple of stragglers, all in glasses and the wrong sizes (I may be wearing glasses too, but I’ve branded them as intellectual sophistication). Their ads read, “EVERYTHING MUST GO!”, “UP TO 90% OFF!”, “FROM $0.99!”. How tragic. As much as I want to be compassionate I can’t bring myself to buy something so low-quality.
One of them turns, smiles at me and starts approaching. I recognize him; I spoke to him once last month when I was totally broke and had to settle. ‘Nice guy’, I guess. But now I’m back on my feet, so I turn away quickly and avoid eye contact. Why should I be seen in a t-shirt from Goodwill when I can have, at least, JCrew? Come on, man. I deserve to treat myself. I decide to make a getaway by pretending to leave the room for fresh air.
On the way out someone brushes past me; I catch a glimpse of his ad, and realize it’s the exact same one as mine. But he’s on the phone, so I decide to ignore him — he’s probably too busy with his other customers right now, and doesn’t have time for other friends. I want undivided attention.
My phone rings. I dash out of the party to pick it up because I know this is a customer, and I desperately need to fix my brand image.
I exhaust all the standard greetings from the Small Talk Handbook, but the customer doesn’t buy any of it. She realizes that I’m busy trying to acquire new customers and gets upset that I’m not investing all my time into her. I try to appease her with the tips I found in How to Pretend to Listen 101, but that somewhat backfires — she launches into a long tirade about work, stale sushi and some rogue Starbucks cashier.
Honest to god, I would pay more attention if only I have any left. She clearly wants me to, right now, but I’m flat broke —a lot of my old customers haven’t been paying me (they’ve been ‘too busy’), and that’s why I’m here at this party in the first place, to earn more.
I realize that if I don’t pay her immediately, I will probably lose her business, but I hang up anyway and sigh. I just can’t afford it. On the way back in, someone with a familiar-looking ad brushes past me — a big, red one, with “ON SALE” scribbled on it in white. Exactly like my own, in fact. But he doesn’t seem interested in buying, and I’m not in the mood to do another sales pitch right now.
It’s alright. There’ll always be another customer, and another seller, just like how a supermarket would never run out of ground beef to sell, and cows will never run out of supermarkets to end up in.
Struggling to be Sold is the sequel to Struggling to be Normal, an essay about my personal tussle with autism. But what Normal doesn’t discuss enough, and what I want to address here, are relationships.
I always wished they were simpler to understand and more formulaic to execute. I couldn’t handle the infinite unwritten sensitivities — I could feel, as intensely as if I could inhale it into my lungs, the deep emotion upon which relationships float, but I couldn’t swim.
So I learned the only way I knew how to: studying and memorizing. I googled and read guides on how to make friends, how to speak in public, how to make people like me, etc. Smile and greet, say their name to remember it better, maintain eye contact but break it every 5-10 seconds to not look creepy — I turned it into a formula that I can understand.
But now, I’ve left that age behind me only to walk into an even darker one.
In our great consumer society our relationships are no longer formulaic but mathematic. It’s a game of addition and subtraction — if you look nice, I’ll buy you off the shelf and display you on my coffee table for a couple weeks. Then one day, when you lose your novelty, or when you wear and tear, I’ll throw you out with the trash.
Worse, we market ourselves on social media marketplaces just like the commodity we treat one another as. We sell ourselves in exchange for the currency of time and attention. We expect instant and perfect friendship when we pay, so instead of meeting with an old friend to catch up, we double-tap on their photos.
No one really has friends. Rather, no one owns them. But we can make them if we try.