The business of friendship

There was a time in my life when I probably would have wanted nothing more than to be invited to a party. From the standpoint of someone who was extremely socially awkward until well into junior high, I remember hearing the message of “popular” being “overrated” from various adults and other influences and never really buying it. There was just something to it—they looked like such good friends, and the girls were so pretty. They seemed more grown up, in a way. For me, it was never about the clothes, the makeup, or who was dating who—I envied their friendship. Of course I did; I was terrible at making friends.

woman with balloons

Through knowledge and experience, I learned the lesson most do eventually: things aren’t always what they seem. The word “party” now makes me cringe. There are many reasons for this, some of which are cliché church answers and some of which are very personal. What I want to know, though, is this: out of all the various connotations and associations with the word “party,” how is it that mass product pitches have come to fall under its banner?

If this seems like a left-field connection, just stop and think about it for a moment. In most languages, various words for “party” have positive connotations: friends (acquaintances), fun, memories. In this day and age, awesome Insta photos, music. Unless you’re like me and you’re physiologically incapable of smalltalk, this environment is supposed to be the opposite of awkward. It’s low-pressure. Social hierarchies kinda blur a bit. Food and drink is generally free. You get the picture.

A multilevel marketing, also known as direct selling, party is a gathering of people, usually at the behest of the seller, in order that the seller can give demonstrations of their products that attendants would be persuaded to buy. What this has in common with normal parties: friends (acquaintances); fun and memories, too, in a lot of cases. But aside from that, this kind of party seems to have more in common with a timeshare pitch than the traditional association. The sheer presence of a seller creates an agent-client dynamic that exists discordantly with the friendship dynamic behind the other kind of party. This seems weird to me.

One can take issue with my definitions of “party,” certainly. They’re not very scientific. But the point remains: there is something a little odd about the introduction of an agent-client, known for our purposes here as “customer,” dynamic into any friendship relationship. Generally speaking, my friends come from places like church, school, and social clubs, places where a financial element only exists when we’re, say, trying to fundraise together for a specific cause. It’s far from impossible to have friends at work, but if you think about it, those folks tend to be more like acquaintances. Consider, for instance, the five most recent people you had dinner with aside from a romantic partner, then consider where you know them from, and the point becomes clearer. Why dinner? It’s a more intimate meal than lunch. And why this exercise? Because money is awkward. The five most recent people you had dinner with are probably your friends, and it’s fairly rare to find a group of friends from any circle of origin discussing their personal income around the dinner table. When you introduce money into a relationship, that relationship takes on a quality that is somehow less personal. It isn’t wrong, but it’s not intimate, either, and in most cultures it would introduce a hierarchy stratified by income level, something that has no place among friends.

I will admit to something freely, now. This second round on Facebook, I’ve kept things a bit closer in. Only current friends and family, and a small handful of friends from high school, have access to my page. Nevertheless, it has been my personal policy on social media to unfollow any friend or family member, no matter how much I like them, when I see either political posts or multilevel marketing. There are many reasons for this: as I mentioned in my last post, for politics, it’s a matter of making it easier on myself to keep my mouth shut. For MLM, it’s a bit more complicated. I have serious ethical issues with most pyramid schemes (a category which, when the term is used colloquially the way I’m employing it, includes almost all multilevel marketing) for reasons such as sourcing, financial practice, and transparency. But more than that, being sold at just makes me uncomfortable.

The reason why is simple. I have rarely seen a friend, acquaintance, or anyone participate in MLM with zero effects. Introducing the customer dynamic into a friendship does something awkward to it. My conservative friends might agree with Milton Friedman’s famous adage that “the purpose of business is to make money”—is that not the point of multilevel marketing, then? Is it not fundamentally a business? I do know a few people who became distributors of various things (essential oils, dietary supplements, cooking supplies, etc) they found worked for them purely so they could take advantage of the wholesale price, and who don’t seek to profit from selling their wares at market price. Those cases aren’t the norm. My second question, then: even when the product being sold can definitely help the person who is buying it, isn’t that, from the perspective of the seller, a secondary benefit? Is the first goal not to get them to buy the product in the first place?

Which brings me back to my original question: why in the world are the events at which multilevel marketing products are sold called “parties?” I’m hard pressed to believe that the positive connotations with the word “party” weren’t set up intentionally, here. If we strip the definition of “party” down to its lexical origin, it comes from the Latin partire, “to share,” and refers to a group of one or more people. The “or more” then introduces a social dynamic by default; most neural-normal people have positive associations with the words “social gathering” in the absence of further context. Again, this is all very intentional. On the other hand, the word “salesman” tends to invoke a slightly negative response. When the two signals are interposed, then, there is confusion.

And thus, my point. My personal preference is that I don’t like it when people, even if they’re my friends, try to sell me things absent my personal inquiry. My larger concern, and the thing I would like those with a different perspective on MLM to seriously consider, is that these schemes have the potential to be socially damaging. It’s a difficult phenomenon to pin down in words, but it’s also hard to be successful at these schemes without investing in them. The more one invests in them, the more the product becomes their business. By nature, the more it becomes their business, the more personally invested in it they become. And in this culture, business and friendship are oil and water. It’s worth examining the purpose of friendship—if only to keep it from being spoiled.

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