At 11am this morn­ing, the phone rings. Some­one has tried to buy nearly three hun­dred pounds worth of ‘women’s coun­try cloth­ing’ online in my name (not a very likely sce­nario). A sales­per­son was alerted by some­thing about the dif­fer­ence and dis­tance between the alleged buyer (me) and the deliv­ery address (in Glas­gow). It’s part of how she does her job, tak­ing the trou­ble to notice if there’s some­thing amiss. Some­thing about the sale didn’t add up, she explains. Did I really buy this stuff? Well no of course not! I exclaim. I get put through to the man­ager to be given more details of the card that was used. Grad­u­ally I realise what an unusual sit­u­a­tion this is. Some­one searched for my tele­phone num­ber in the phone book so they could talk to me directly to ascer­tain whether I made the pur­chase. I ask about the com­pany. It is small, based in a sin­gle shop in the north of Eng­land, with a paper cat­a­logue and web­site for online sales. (Now I actu­ally want to be their customer!)

As the day has gone on, I’ve been struck all the more by what a con­sid­er­ate, even eth­i­cal ges­ture this was. If the sale had been com­pleted – the coun­try cloth­ing dis­patched and my account deb­ited – and I had realised this some days later, I think the bank would have taken the hit, so there was no purely eco­nomic need for the kind sales­woman to look any fur­ther. It sug­gests an empa­thy with the cus­tomer, and pride in the job, bound up with a busi­ness prac­tice that rests on a notion of just exchange rather than profit max­imi­sa­tion at any cost.

As soon as the con­ver­sa­tion with the coun­try cloth­ing com­pany is over, I call my bank. They can­cel my card and the fraud­u­lent trans­ac­tion. A cou­ple of hours later, I get a secu­rity alert from them. They have blocked another pay­ment – gen­uinely my expen­di­ture this time – so I try to get it rein­stated. It was to a large, cor­po­rate online photo ser­vice and I’m keen to avoid upload­ing my pho­tos again. The bank refuse to sort this out, con­strained by their own irrev­o­ca­ble deci­sions. The large bureau­cracy deals only in absolutes and the unfor­tu­nate per­son on the other end of the line has no auton­omy to act in this sit­u­a­tion, even in the face of its own stupidity.

I call the photo com­pany, explain­ing the sequence of events to at least two dif­fer­ent peo­ple (there are dif­fer­ent depart­ments for pho­to­books, can­vases, and prints…). Even­tu­ally, a woman says: But your order was dis­patched yes­ter­day. Oh, I reply, so what do I do about the pay­ment that’s been blocked? We’re not able to take pay­ments over the phone, she responds, we don’t even have a machine for it! There is a short pause: You know what, just for­get it, she con­tin­ues. She’s actu­ally telling me not to set­tle my account. It’s for a small amount after all we both agree, and well, some­one can always chase me later, if they even trace what’s hap­pened, she laugh­ingly comments.

The organ­i­sa­tion that’s evoked in this last exchange is, like the bank, a rigid, bureau­cratic and mind­less machine. There is no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the com­pany on the part of the sales­woman, and no con­cern for doing the right thing in line with a par­tic­u­lar busi­ness prac­tice. Unlike in the bank how­ever, the worker side­steps the bureau­cratic impasse in the inter­ests of the cus­tomer, leav­ing the lum­ber­ing mar­ket to fig­ure out its own incon­sis­ten­cies – as the cloth­ing com­pany worker does but in a very dif­fer­ent spirit. The photo com­pany worker may have a dis­re­gard for the com­pany – dis­af­fec­tion per­haps – but this is not extended to the cus­tomer. I get the feel­ing that she is putting her­self in my place, and mak­ing a level-headed judg­ment call. She might be moti­vated by the sat­is­fac­tion of being help­ful or sim­ply know that it’s best not to try and fight the insur­mount­able fail­ings of the sys­tem. Still, it’s a win-win sce­nario for us both.

What all this shows how­ever is the dif­fer­ent extremes under which work­ers (except for those employed by my bank it seems) exer­cise auton­omy and demon­strate empa­thy – both in a small per­son­alised busi­ness and a giant face­less cor­po­ra­tion. Using their intu­ition and judge­ment based on the infor­ma­tion at hand, and going beyond what that infor­ma­tion lit­er­ally tells them to make bet­ter sense of the sit­u­a­tion, they find a res­olutely human way to make a living.