- 3 million shipped daily, or 1.1 trillion every year
- Can be shipped and delivered in less than twenty-four hours
- Comes with a smile
My local parcel carriers know I work from home. Whenever they have a delivery for my neighbors, they ring me. I hurry down so they don’t have to climb the stairs. The DHL deliveryman told me he walks up to nine miles a day. His younger, more slender colleague told me he walks up to twenty-two miles a day, and that he needs new shoes every two months. The Hermes deliveryman is new in my area. He bears no resemblance to the Greek messenger god from whom the shipping company takes its name. He’s elderly and overweight, and wears an ill-fitting blue uniform. When we met recently, on the first floor, he was out of breath. He handed me a cardboard box printed with a black arrow in the shape of a smile. The deliveryman did not smile. He told me he had just carried four furniture boxes to the fifth floor of another building while the owner watched from the doorway.
I took the package, signed for it, and placed it in the hall for my neighbor. I contemplated the smile. A few years ago, to supplement my meager writing income, I got a job as a seasonal associate at an Amazon fulfillment center in Leipzig, Germany. I worked in the books department, checking incoming products for damage and scanning them into the warehouse system, which made them available online for customers to buy. During my training, Amazon emphasized satisfaction and teamwork as part of its culture. We called one another by our first names, as if we were friends. When Amazon delivers a package to a customer, I was told, everyone should be happy. Seasonal associates are behind every smile on every box, the training videos say.
Also: we were poorly compensated for exhausting work, we had no guaranteed employment, and we received no benefits. We had to stand near doors that didn’t fully close, letting in frigid winter air. “Amazon wants its employees to be healthy not only when they’re working here, but also when they leave the company,” my trainer informed us. He also told us: “Sick days harm Amazon.” We showed up to work with toothaches or fevers, because we were afraid that if we took sick days our contracts would not be renewed, or we would lose our jobs outright. At Amazon’s insistence that we “Work hard. Have fun. Make history,” we traded cynical grins—but only on our lunch breaks, when we couldn’t be seen.
I sympathize easily. It’s a human trait. Mirror neurons, which have been observed primarily in Homo sapiens and apes, cause us to instinctively mimic the emotions we see in others. When I’m being smiled at, I am compelled to smile back, whether the smiler is a neighbor, a TV character, a despot—or a cardboard box. The smile is everywhere. It piles up in trash bins. It’s carried to and from the post office. It lines the sides of the tram. Passing by the DHL truck in my neighborhood, I look inside—a third of the packages are smiling. The driver, who is smoking and sorting boxes, says hello. I ask him: “What do you think about the smile on the boxes?” He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. “All parcels need to be delivered. Those”—he points at boxes marked PRIO—“need to be delivered today.” Soon, he tells me, the DHL drivers are going on strike. I say I’m all for it and offer to lend him some protest literature. It occurs to me that many of my protest books were delivered to me in smiling boxes.
While the Nike swoosh embodies confidence and cool, the simple curve of the Amazon logo recalls an obsequious service smile. The soft edges of the grin, and its winking right corner, are meant to put you at ease. No matter how unfair the working conditions, how miserable the workforce: a smile was here. Did I ever see a human smile at Amazon? I can’t recall a single instance. A security guard laughed once, while she was walking among a line of seasonal workers. She was carrying a large bolt cutter and saying, “One day I’m gonna smash one of you.”
The smile gets me down. A short while ago, I learned a trick from a friend who works the night shift at DHL: he turns the boxes over. Every night he sorts thousands of packages, and he makes it his business to place the parcels on the conveyer belt so they arrive at the next worker upside down—not smiling, but frowning. I started to do the same, but I continued to read the symbol as a smile even upside down. I had to unlearn it. My kids helped by painting eyes over the arrow mouth. Eventually it worked. I saw the box and I didn’t smile back.