More on engagement



An interesting word. A big word. Used in many contexts. So I thought I’d check on the etymology. (Mostly taken, with some liberty in how I’ve edited or presented it, from Oxford Languages, as provided online by Google).

A gage. Noun. A valued object deposited as a guarantee of good faith. A pledge, especially a glove, thrown down as a symbol of a challenge to fight.

To gage. Verb. To offer an object, even one’s life, as a guarantee of good faith.

To engage. Verb. To occupy or attract (someone’s interest or attention); to participate or become involved in; to establish a meaningful contact or connection with; to arrange to employ or hire (someone); to pledge or enter into a contract to do something; to reserve in advance; to move into position so as to come into operation; to bring together preparatory to fighting.

Engagement. Noun. A legal or moral obligation.

An obligation. A guarantee of good faith. Between people.

That’s all very good from an etymological sense. But I’d like to make a gentle adjustment to one of the definitions. In the “to occupy or attract” definition, rather than just cover “someone’s interest or attention”, I would add the word “intention”. If you want to know more, read Doc Searls on Attention is Not a Commodity. Better still, read his book on the Intention Economy.

Purpose, and the consequences of purpose

An engagement is a commitment, at the very least to the provision of one’s attention. Which, as Doc said, isn’t a commodity.

Since engagement is obligation, there is an expectation, however soft, moral or legal, that some action will follow. In many cases that action is a transaction, an exchange of value.

So people try and engage people, in order to gain some commitment to perform some later action. Let’s now look at how that happens.


People engage when they feel valued, when they feel their dignity is intact, when they feel respected.The context doesn’t matter. For dignity to be present, something akin to mutual respect and tolerance must be present. So whether it’s face to face, on the phone, via a chat system, using asynchronous messaging or even in self-service mode, the person being engaged must feel valued. Otherwise he or she won’t feel engaged.

How often have you been at a shop or supermarket where there are a bunch of people queueing up to use self-service tills, often aided and abetted by someone queue-managing and providing assistance where needed? It looks smooth. And seems to work.


But it’s not smooth. Anything but. For some reason, they can’t make the thingummybob work.

It’s not just at the shop till. A self-service machine on a railway platform. A parking ticket machine. A modern “cashless” drinks dispenser. And, heaven forfend, a passport or boarding pass or ticket scanner at a turnstile-like choke point.

The blasted thing doesn’t work. Just. Doesn’t. Work.

They feel their dignity being torn away from them. In frustration they make mistakes that compound whatever was failing before (which was often not their fault). They watch people on either side of them pass through without effort, and feel judged. They’re made to feel small, inadequate. Stupid. They’re embarrassed at having to go back and to ask for help. They feel irritated at being delayed.

It only has to happen once or twice before they vow never to go down the self-serve route again. And what happens is that there are large queues at the “manned” counters, while the self-serve queues get even smaller. And those in the counter queue imagine the smirks of the I’m-All-Right-Jacks sailing by.

Imagine. Because they’ve had their dignity torn away.

I see this so often at the e-passport gates. What a way to welcome people to a country. Strip them of their dignity even before they’ve set foot in the land they’re about to visit.

When you see self-service counters readily available, and long queues at the full-service counters, spare a thought for why that happens so often.

Fairness and security

As the saying goes, people buy from people, people sell to people. The exchange of value is an act clothed in vulnerability. People want to be sure they’re not being hoodwinked. They don’t want to feel pressured into a purchase. They want to be sure that when they part with money, they’re going to get what they expect in return.

So they want to know that the transaction they are about to perform is “safe”.

But they have all kinds of insecurities. Is the price fair? Are they wasting money? If it’s an online purchase, is the seller trustworthy? Will they get their goods? If’s it’s self-service, will the machine “eat their money”? Did they press the right buttons? If it’s a touch screen, and it’s doing nothing, is it their fault? Are their hands too clammy? If it’s one of those new-fangled cashless machines, will their card work? Will they put it in the right slot? When they can’t read (or understand) what it’s saying, will they know what to do?

Are they buying the right ticket for their journey? Or are they being silly and leaving money on the table? Questions, questions. Why do they feel so inadequate?

Every time I go to an airport, every time I’m at a medical centre or a hospital, every time I’m at a railway station, every time I’m at a supermarket, I see the look. People staring wistfully at the self-serve counters as they queue up elsewhere. People glancing knowingly at the spectacle of someone arguing with the machine as it gobbles their money and returns zilch. The retail equivalent of the arcade game’s TILT warning coming on as they try and manhandle the beast.

We shouldn’t be building systems that make people feel insecure, inadequate, cheated. Changes to much of what we do take time. And education. And time. And assistance. And time. And good design. And time. And iteration.

There was a time when people didn’t use cashpoints and instead went in to the bank branch. There was a time when people didn’t use cards and preferred cash instead. There was a time when people went to shops and tried things on, tried using things, before buying them. There was a time.

Of course things have improved. Of course we can expect things to continue improving. But.

if we really want things to improve, we need to ensure that the way we engage with people preserves their dignity and their sense of security. We need to ensure that the transitions we make aid and abet that preservation of dignity. We need to ensure that transition times reflect that.

The role of education

Good design always helps. But there’s more needed when it comes to explanations and cues and button descriptions and what-have-you. To paraphrase Kristofferson/Joplin, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to choose.

When I came to the UK, I’d never seen a supermarket before. I was 23, a university graduate, about to start my second job. The first time I went into a supermarket by myself, it was to buy toothpaste. In Calcutta, I went to the neighbourhood store and asked for toothpaste and got toothpaste. They didn’t really ask me what kind I wanted. If I wanted a particular brand I would have said so. But I didn’t have to face that paradox of choice.

So when I entered the supermarket, and found that toothpaste and related products took up an entire aisle, I picked up the first thing I saw, ran to the counter, paid for it, and high-tailed it home. It was a harrowing experience. Made all the more interesting when I found out that my newly-acquired stand-up toothpaste dispenser was for dentures. It took me a while before I returned to the supermarket to buy anything. The local corner shop was closer to my cultural needs, even if it was expensive: it was convenient.

I keep hearing tales that people don’t do things because they’re not aware or informed or know how to. There’s an inbuilt inertia in changing provider in so many markets, not because of a deep trust in the existing provider, but of a fear that the process of change is fraught with opportunities for embarrassment.

Not everyone has an intuitive understanding of everything. We have people from very different backgrounds, ages, experiences and abilities, all being shoehorned into digitally-literate rational-actor superstars. Not everyone has the same eyesight, the same ability to use touch screens, the same facility with modern card systems, the same nimbleness with fat fingers on tiny buttons.

Some conclusions

Last time I wrote about this, I spent time sharing my thoughts on how we appear to value digital engagement while trying our darnedest to reduce analogue engagement. How the conversations that really build relationships are diminished, how the information flow is weakened, and how markets are messed up in consequence.

This time I’ve tried to look at what underpins engagement, the importance of dignity and security and trust.

When I was young, I was deep into the heady utopia of the 1960s, and loved phrases like “suppose they gave a war, and nobody came”.

We’re busy removing all human contact, busy demolishing tokens of trust, busy telling people to shut up and go away.

Busy standardising everyone, invoking a Model-T like “any colour you like as long as it’s black” approach.

Busy anthropomorphising the interfaces we build, while removing the humanity of the underlying “systems”. Systems that used to be made up of humans, interacting in an environment of trust, exchanging vulnerabilities and value.

Take the impending shutdown of ticket offices. Statistics of usage across the country mean nothing, we have to look at individual stations and the demographics of the catchment area. When you’re retired, like me, you tend to travel – most of the time – using a senior railcard. The time of travel matters. The time of return matters. Aggie, who runs the local ticket office, knows this. She knows the Byzantine architecture of ticket pricing. And so she asks me which train I’m going to catch, and which one I intend to come back on. And then smoothly proceeds to sell me the right deal.

A machine can do that. Should do that. But it doesn’t. Time is not a question the machine wants an answer to. It’s just a crude peak or off peak dichotomy, with the occasional “evening out” deal thrown in.

Kindness is courtesy. Kindness promotes dignity. I regularly see the train guard step out on to the platform to see if someone’s running for the train, waiting if needed. I see the train guard help people get on, especially if they’re old and/or laden with cases or wheelchairs or children or grandchildren.

Kindness doesn’t cost much. Civility breeds civility. These things used to be part of our human interactions. In many places they continue to be part of it.

But not everywhere. And we are some way from machines understanding how to be kind. How to watch out for someone needing help. How to be patient. How to provide warmth and encouragement. How to laugh with the community they are part of. How to understand community in the first place.

I am grateful for all the things that I can do in a digital world, things that were really hard to do in the analogue world, or in earlier digital forms. There are many. Too many to list here. Probably fodder for another post one day.

But today, I wanted to remind people of our privileged status, and to have some consideration for those that are are being disenfranchised, made to feel embarrassed and inadequate, and to all intents and purposes excluded more and more from modern life.

Engagement starts with the preservation of dignity.

Let me know what you think

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