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Let’s Agree That I Don’t Know You

Shanghai: proto

Encountered a nice touch on returning from a business trip to urbn hotel Shanghai, where on arrival the receptionist refused to take my credit card for a deposit. By refusing to do so, she was essentially saying “your credit is good.” I’m an occasional guest there and frog’s Shanghai studio sends a fair number of folks to stay there, too–but the familiarity and recognition is still a momentary pleasant surprise.

Recognizing the customer with a “welcome back Ms …” is one of the basics of service design: acknowledging who we are and reinforces our “right” to be in that (private) space. In the context of an upscale environment, it gently massages the ego. The check-in process for hotels is fairly formulaic — you show your passport and credit card, the first of which is legally required at least in China; the other is dependent on the company should it turn out your credit is not good. Waiving the need for a credit card is a small step; after all, if an establishment immediately recognizes you when you enter, it should have your (most likely valid) credit card on file.

The recognition process today is often a two-stage affair: the first task dredges up an identifier of who you are , and the second delivers a recognition of that bit of identification. The less the first task is noticed, the more natural or magic or caring it seems. Looking at a name on a credit card and saying “Hello, Mr. Chipchase” does not cut it. It’s not seamless and gracefully choreographed. After all, we experience the U.S. immigration official who handles your passport annotate the anything-to-declare form, then smoothly give the customs official a heads-up to pull you aside; the receptionists at ANA First lounge at Tokyo’s Narita Airport greet you on arrival, and then call through to staff in the lounge who are then able to greet you by name. (Yeah, I know, more examples from the world of travel).

In a world of strangers, the act of recognizing who you are has value. But increasingly that personalized greeting is becoming commoditized: from personalised spam to automated birthday greetings; the spread of retail chains with their service training to say a customer’s name out loud after asking for it. Increasingly, this trend toward the value of commoditized recognition will be supplemented by facial recognition.

When everyone is known by name, the value of being known shifts to the extremes. In the context of that moment in the urbn hotel, having the receptionist refuse to take and copy my passport–in addition to her not taking my credit card–would have upped their commitment to our relationship. It would have been a the truly personal touch, putting the hotel legally on the line. It would have become “our secret.”

To explore what the other extreme might look like: in what transaction contexts do we currently appreciate anonymity, or even pseudo-anonymity–and are we willing to pay for it? There are moments in the hotel service industry where knowing who you are is key, and moments when discretion (an implicit agreement that what you do will remain anonymous) is equally if not more valued–as in, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It might range from what you have for breakfast; to guests invited into room for an hour or two; or the things people leave behind in the hotel room because they don’t want to take it back to their home.

Here’s my thought for today: the social cues for signaling that someone is known are well established, evolved. And that the cues (and social literacy around those cues) to signal anonymity will become far more nuanced.

In a world where by default people are known, I want you to know that I don’t know you.

This piece was first published on Fast Company.