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.