Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Reputation is a Resource

Among the innumerable benefits of the Internet, I love the ubiquitous ratings systems. I really appreciate customer comments and ratings on products and services. Before I buy anything, or hire someone to do a job, I can find out what other people’s experiences were. Often I will look at the one-star reviews first—what was it that really bugged people?
No longer can companies dazzle us with advertising that hides a shoddy product—once the bad reviews start piling up no ad can make up for the bad reputation. Whole businesses revolve around reputation. For example, Angie’s list helps you find the best service professionals in your area.
Reputations also help me evaluate a book or blog post. When I’m reading about a subject in which I have no expertise, looking the author up online can give me some insight into whether I should trust his or her research and arguments.
As a young woman, I was taught to be careful of my reputation (that is, don’t be too easy with the boys) but other than that I never gave the concept much thought. But two of the books I’ve read this year mentioned the importance of reputation in human life.
The first book was on human evolution: Wired for Culture, by Mark Pagel. As the title suggests this book argues that the defining aspect of humanity is our complex social organizations, built on cooperation within groups. Reputation, Mr. Pagel says, is vital to making our societies work: cooperation requires trust, and we use reputations to tell us whether we can trust a person.
"Our social systems of cooperation and helping are revealed as sophisticated marketplaces, capable of generating both individual returns and goods that benefit others. They work like a monetary system, with our personal reputations acting as the currency we use to buy trust and cooperation. Reputations are valuable, so we have to earn or pay for them. Once purchased, a good reputation can then be used to buy cooperation from others, even people we have never met, just as we can use money to buy goods from people we have never met…Indeed, our reputations represent the first ‘monetary union’ or single currency. We could even see them as a form of credit, because a good reputation might allow you to negotiate an exchange on the promise you will produce your part of the bargain later (in this context it is noteworthy that ‘credit’ derives from the Latin credo or ‘I believe’)…So fundamental are our reputations to our social systems that comparing them to a monetary system is not merely apt, it should probably be made the other way around."
David Graeber, in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, gives evidence that reputations were used as a form of capital in the Middle Ages:
One lively debate in early commercial law was over the question of whether reputation could (like land, labor, money, or other resources) itself be considered a form of capital. It sometimes happened that merchants would form partnerships with no capital at all, but only their good names. This was called ‘partnership of good reputation.’
Mr. Graeber later describes how, in England 200 and 300 years ago, reputation was a very important consideration in business affairs:
When people used the word ‘credit,’ they referred above all to a reputation for honesty and integrity; and a man or woman’s honor, virtue, and respectability, were at least as important considerations when deciding whether to make a loan as were assessments of net income. As a result, financial terms became indistinguishable from moral ones. One could speak of others as ‘worthies,’ as ‘a woman of high estimation’ or ‘a man of no account,’ and equally of ‘giving credit’ to someone’s words when one believes what they say (‘credit’ is from the same root as ‘creed’ or ‘credibility’), or of ‘extending credit’ to them, when one takes them at their word that they will pay one back.
If you lost your reputation you became a pariah—a rootless laborer, beggar, or peddler. A harlot was a ‘woman of ill repute.’
One of the contributing causes of the financial meltdown of 2008 was that “reputation” was discarded as a factor in the decision to issue mortgages. Subprime mortgages were issued to anyone who was still breathing, and finance companies didn’t check to see if people were lying about their financial status. The old mechanisms of reputation—you borrowed from a local bank where you were known—had broken down.
Reputation has non-monetary aspects also. In the first half of my life I lived in cities. Then I moved to a small town, and worried about the fact that everyone would know about me; there would be no escaping my reputation.
After living in the small town for a number of years I wrote an article for the local newspaper, entitled “Small Town Living as Spiritual Practice”:
One day I found myself yelling at a customer service person on the telephone and it occurred to me that the anger I was expressing was way out of proportion to the problem I was complaining about. I realized I was taking out my angers and frustrations about a whole host of other problems on this poor anonymous person. I would never have spoken that way to someone I knew, or even to a stranger right in front of me. But the anonymity of the telephone and modern systems such as call centers removed the humanity from this person (in my mind at least). 
When I contemplated moving to Highlands almost 19 years ago, the thought of living in a small town scared me. I spent the first half of my life in cities: St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco. I was used to the anonymity of cities where no one knew you. Small towns are famous for their gossip—I hated the idea that people I didn’t know would be privy to intimate details of my life. 
As the years have passed I have come to think differently about the lack of privacy in a small town. I believe that living in a small town can be a spiritual practice. 
In a city I can go into a supermarket or a bank and act like a jerk because that person doesn’t know who I am, and chances are I’ll never have to interact with that person again, so who cares what they think about me and how I’m behaving? 
But in a small town that anonymity doesn’t exist. If I am rude to the checkout person at the grocery store, I will see that person next week, and the week after that. Or if I am angry dealing with the clerk at the post office, I will see that same person over and over again every time I need to mail a parcel. 
In a small town you’re being observed even when you’re driving! Surely one of the safest places in modern life to vent frustrations is in the car (based on observations of people’s hand gestures while driving the highways). But here people know your car and if you are careless or rude you can be sure someone will notice 
Living here has made me aware of how my words and actions impact other people’s lives. It has made me aware of how I am affected by my emotions: if I’m in a bad mood I treat everyone and everything indifferently at best, but if I’m in a good mood I am engaged and interested. The highest praise I have heard about a person is that they are consistent in their behavior towards others; no matter what is going on in their lives they are gracious and thoughtful. This is the standard to which I aspire, and living in Highlands is helping me.
In that small town I discovered the value of reputation. What a fascinating invention of the human mind, a non-tangible resource created through our actions in the world!

Update: In a New Yorker article about the Swiss climber Ueli Steck, author Nick Paumgarten writes, "He was anxious about his reputation--it was the distillate of all those [mountain] faces and summits, his true currency..." ["The Manic Mountain," June 3, 2013]

No comments:

Post a Comment