Economic Relationships

Candace Smith, someone whom I have quoted in the past, has another excellent post on personal etiquette. Candace writes:

When you were young you probably got used to asking permission to do things. Parents require this to be sure their child is safe within boundaries. But children tend to push back, testing limits, when they begin to individualize.

Part of gaining the right to expand boundaries comes from a parent’s approval; hearing the word “yes.” It’s a process based on concurrence. Getting the green light feels good.

The same principle applies when asking permission to join someone in an activity, a conversation, or a project. It feels good when someone says, “Sure! Join us.”

“May I join you?” is an influential question. It is immediately friendly, but at its foundation it reflects understanding and consideration.

She then goes on to list various introductory phrases which are variations on the theme of asking permission:


“Excuse me…”

“May I help you?”

“Hi, may I ask…”

“How are you?”

What’s interesting about these phrases is they are used in both personal and commercial life. Entering into a store, we are often greeted with a phrase above. “May I help you” is exceptionally common.

As Candace notes in her post, these phrases ask permission to enter into a person’s personal space. When one enters a store, the store employee shows respect and sympathy to the customer with the phrase “may I help you?” It is a way of saying “welcome to my store. I respect your personal space but i would like to serve you if you will allow it.”

These sort of manners are vital forms of competition for producers and buyers. We tend to think of competition in purely monetary (ie price) terms, or along margins like quality of product. But striving to build a quasi-personal relationship with the consumer with such manners as Candace discusses are also vital for firms to compete with others. Competition is, to paraphrase Hayek, how we decide who will serve us best. And one such way is for a producer to signal sympathy with us with the common greeting of “may I help you?” These signals tell consumers that this firm is worthy of forming an economic relationship with.

Jon MurphyEconomic Thought