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When Brenda met Laura

The art of engagement 

A Frenchman in Argentina colours

December 21, 2022
The gift

Good morning,


This is the season of gifting. And people who gift thoughtfully are a rare breed. So, what is it about gifts and gifting that makes it nuanced? This is a question Lewis Hyde explores deeply in the meticulously researched The Gift


“It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection. I go into a hardware store, pay the man for a hacksaw blade and walk out. I

may never see him again. The disconnectedness is, in fact, a virtue of the commodity mode. We don’t want to be bothered. If the clerk always wants to chat about the family, I’ll shop elsewhere. I just want a hacksaw blade.


“But a gift makes a connection. To take the simplest of examples, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss tells of a seemingly trivial ceremony he has often seen accompany a meal in cheap restaurants in the South of France. The patrons sit at a long, communal table, and each finds before his plate a modest bottle of wine. Before the meal begins, a man will pour his wine not into his own glass but into his neighbour’s. And his neighbour will return the

gesture, filling the first man’s empty glass. In an economic sense nothing has happened. No one has any more wine than he did to begin with. But society has appeared where there was none before. The French customarily tend to ignore people whom they do not know, but in these little restaurants, strangers find themselves placed in close relationship for an hour or more. ‘A conflict exists,’ says Levi-Strauss, ‘not very keen to be sure, but real enough and sufficient to create a state of tension between the norm of privacy and the fact of community… This is the fleeting but difficult situation resolved by the exchange of wine. It is an assertion of good grace which does away with the mutual uncertainty.’ Spatial proximity becomes social life through an exchange of gifts. Further, the pouring of the wine sanctions another exchange—conversation—and a whole series of trivial social ties unfolds.


“There are many such simple examples, the candy or cigarette offered to a stranger who shares a seat on the plane, the few words that indicate goodwill between passengers on the late-night bus. These tokens establish the simplest bonds of social life, but the model they offer may be extended to the most complicated of unions…


“To take just one of the innumerable examples of marriage gifts, in New Caledonia when boys reach puberty they seek out girls from the clan complementary to their own and exchange tokens whose value and nature are set by custom. A boy’s first question to a girl whose favour he seeks is, ‘Will you take my gifts or not?’ The answer is sometimes ‘I will take them,’ and sometimes ‘I have taken the gifts of another man. I don’t want to exchange with you.’ To accept a boy’s gifts initiates a series of oscillating reciprocations which leads finally to the formal gifts of nuptial union. Courtship in New Caledonia, it seems, is no different from courtship throughout the world.”


Have a good day.

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When Brenda met Laura

A popular story that dominates headlines is how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will replace humans. We have, however, always argued it will either create a new class of jobs or both will work together. And this first person account by Laura Preston in The Guardian, who worked for a year as a backup to a chatbot called Brenda, is one of the best first person accounts we have read in recent times—it reinforces our view. 


“It was the spring of 2019. My time as a creative writing student had just come to an end, as had my funding, and the rent was due; I needed a job. I sent the recruiter my CV. Several phone interviews later, I was signing up for training slots and watching a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on fair-housing law. I did a little maths: an operator made $25 an hour, and worked between 15 and 30 hours a week, depending on how lucky they were in the weekly shift lottery…


“(W)e operators, with our advanced degrees in the humanities, had aptitudes Brenda lacked. We were intuitive, articulate and sensitive to the finer points of delivery. At $25 an hour we also cost almost nothing to employ, by corporate standards. Under the Brenda-operator alliance, everyone came out ahead: the operators got paid better than they would as adjunct professors, and Brenda became more likeable, more convincing, more humane. Meanwhile, Brenda’s corporate clients were satisfied knowing they had not replaced their phone lines with a customer-service bot. What they were using, instead, was cutting-edge AI backed by PhDs in literature.


“Brenda would carry on a conversation, and when she started to fail an operator would speak in her place. In reality, I rarely spoke for Brenda. Most of her missteps were errors of comprehension… But there were moments when a full takeover was necessary. When Brenda did not understand a message, and knew she did not understand, she tagged the message with HUMAN_FALLBACK. HUMAN_FALLBACK was Brenda’s white flag of surrender. With HUMAN_FALLBACK, Brenda ceded the conversation to me, and I had to assume her voice and manner.”

The art of engagement

Everywhere, there is much talk about ‘quiet quitting’, where workers do the bare minimum to collect their paychecks, without deeper engagement, without feeling that the work adds something meaningful to their lives. In a podcast with Laura Pavin, Leigh Thompson, a professor at Kellogg, highlights several aspects that one should consider while trying to engage with such employees.  One of them is to turn the gaze inwards, at yourself. 


Pavin says: “Thompson’s actually studied how the moods of team leaders are really contagious and affect the behaviour of their teams: the more powerful a person is in the organisation, she found, the more ‘contagious’ their emotional mindset is. There was this one simulation she ran where business students were asked to play out the role of a superior and the role of a subordinate. The superior had to negotiate with the subordinate over the allocation of scarce resources, and obviously, the subordinate had a lot less ‘power’ in the scenario. What she learned was that the emotional state of the powerful superior—positive or negative—affected the trust between the parties, it affected their performance on a collaborative task, and it affected how ‘fair’ the outcomes were. If the powerful manager had a negative disposition, there ended up being lower trust, worse performance, and unfair allocation of resources. If the powerful manager had a positive disposition, on the other hand, trust flourished, collaboration was profitable, and the less-powerful person received more resources.


“Now, keep in mind the environment and situation was the same. The only difference was what Thompson calls the ‘chronic emotional disposition’ of the leader involved.


“Thompson says that, each day, we consciously pack up our briefcase and get our meeting notes ready, but we are often unaware of whom we are bringing to work—our positive self or our negative self. We are even less aware how our chronic dispositions might be setting the stage for a negative workplace, she says.”

A Frenchman in Argentina colours

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