Zinsser on Friday

Me and My Relationships

By William Zinsser | June 17, 2011


Last week I got a letter from the man I once thought of as my broker, who now calls himself my investment counsel and would probably call himself my wealth management adviser if I had any “wealth” for him to manage. He was writing to tell me that Sandra, “the lead assistant assigned to your relationship, has decided to change careers and become a full-time mother of 10-month-old Brad.”

I didn’t even know I had a relationship with Sandra. She never mentioned it, probably because she already had a relationship–evidently quite a long one–with the father of 10-month-old Brad. But my investment counselor said he was “happy to announce” that Daniele had joined his office and would now be managing my relationship.

A few days later I went into my Citibank branch to get some cash and found a message on the ATM. It said, “Now you can have a dedicated relationship manager!” That got me wondering about Daniele. I knew she would be caring. But shouldn’t she also be dedicated?

I decided to review my other relationships. Franco, my barber, is sensitive to my every whim. He knows exactly where I don’t want him to use clippers, and he never lets those little hairs slip down between my neck and my collar. Maria, at my coffee shop, is exquisitely attuned to our relationship. She knows when it’s so cold outside that I would want soup. Jerry, my laundryman, never forgets to say “Have a nice day” when I drop off my shirts.

Somehow it never occurred to me that I was having a relationship with those men and women. I thought they were just old-fashioned merchants. Obviously what they need is an important job title. If they worked in the financial or the business sector they could be relationship managers. Better yet they could be associates. Half the employees in corporate America are associates. When I’m kept waiting on the telephone, a robot voice says, “All our associates are currently assisting other customers.” (Everyone who keeps us waiting is doing something “currently.”) At my post office an automated voice tells me to “proceed to the associate at window 14.” When I reach window 14 that person doesn’t look like an associate. He or she looks like a postal clerk. That’s an honorable job honorably performed by the United States Postal Service at least since the 19th century.

My problem with “relationship” is that it means whatever anyone needs it to mean. It doesn’t denote a specific act–like, say, “falling in love” or “getting married.” Those bold leaps of faith have long been sung by poets and troubadours. But nowhere in bardic lore is there any word of Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra, or Tristan’s relationship with Isolde, or Romeo’s relationship with the girl on the balcony. Cole Porter didn’t write “Let’s do it, let’s have a relationship.” He wrote “Let’s fall in love.” That’s what people used to do.

I became a student of modern relationships by reading the wedding announcements in The New York Times. Not so long ago those articles only reported the facts: the bride wore a gown of peau de soie, the groom was descended from someone listed in the Domesday Book. But lately they have swollen to include little narratives in which the bride and groom recall their long and labyrinthine journey to the altar. Not unlike Pride and Prejudice in their repeated failures of nerve, those accounts go something like this:

Binky still remembers the day in 1997 when she first met Josh. “I was scuba diving in Antigua,” she says, “and I saw this cute guy with big pecs and curly hair and I knew he was the man of my dreams. We agreed to meet again, and in 1999 I was skiing in Gstaad and I saw this cute guy with a lot of snow in his curly hair, and I’m like, ‘Omigod! Isn’t that Josh?’”

“It was like lightning struck,” Josh recalls, “and I told myself ‘I’ve got to see more of that girl!’” In 2000 he invited Binky to a wine tasting at the Yale Club. They hit it off over “a really neat Chardonnay,” and a few weeks later they began dating and in 2002 they moved in together. “Last year we were at a film festival in Marrakech,” Binky remembers, “and there was a big orange moon over the Atlas Mountains, and Josh looked at me in this funny way and he said, ‘You know, maybe we should think about getting married.’”

Which reminds me: shouldn’t I be hearing from Daniele about my relationship?

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