Doing Gender, Buying Cars

So, we went car browsing today.  I like calling it that, because it’s really not an option.  You can’t “browse.”  If you pull in the lot, you’re “buying.”  We only visited two dealers and we knew we weren’t going to buy anything today.  We really just wanted to test-drive the cars we’re considering.  And we did.  We drove the cars.  But we knew we’d have to put up with everything else that comes with this process for the privilege of the test drive.

Car sales are really a micro-sociological gold mine in terms of interactions.  The salespersons have to keep interactions from getting awkward.  If multiple people come, as was the case with us, they have to quickly assess who’s going to be doing “the talking.”  My wife and I didn’t talk about it beforehand, but we both knew it would be her.  I know next to nothing about cars and my wife subscribed to Car & Driver when she was younger.  Her dad’s a mechanic.  In fact, the first time I met my father-in-law we were under the hood of her car.  He tells her to “pop the hood” every time he sees her.  He’s a wonderful man and I can’t even imagine him intentionally trying to intimidate me.  But I remember feeling that he wouldn’t have had to try hard that day.

Men are always “doing gender” when cars come up.  And buying a car is, I think, thought of as something men do.  This is because buying a car involves a set of interactional skills with which we assume men are better equipped.  Short-story-long, this is an assumption that does not hold for me.   I have my wife call to cancel magazine subscriptions pretending she’s me so that I won’t feel bullied into subscribing for another year.  But, I love the interactions at dealerships.

As a buyer, you try to not act overly interested.   Though of course, sellers know that few people would subject themselves to the kind of interactions you have to endure when you actually open your car door, step out onto the lot, and commit to “looking,” unless they are, in fact, interested.  And then there’s the fact that, really, everyone’s interested in a new car on some level.  Sellers are aware of the stereotypes about car salespersons.  We don’t call them “salesmen” anymore, though all of the salespersons we saw at both dealerships we visited were men.  At the second dealership, we weren’t approached immediately, but someone was called out quickly to “take care of us.”  When someone tells a car salesman to “take care of you,” it feels more like the mob’s use of the phrase than how it’s used by, say, doctors and nurses.  Sellers know this.  So, they have to be careful not to appear too polished, too eager, etc.

Both men we dealt with used a similar strategy to earn our trust.  They talked about their families.  The first seller we talked to has five kids.  His eldest will be going to college in the fall.  The second seller was a bit older.  His kids are out of college.  We learned this when he told us, “We all drive Hondas,” and explained why each family member had subtly different needs and drove a different model.  But, in his office at the dealership, he had pictures of his son and daughter that look like their school photos from middle school.  In fairness, I have no idea if they are guys who just like “talkin’ family,” or whether it’s all part of some act.  But, Goffman taught us to think of all social life as “an act.”  And, I have a feeling that it’s not because we’re sociologists that we felt particularly attuned to thinking about social actions this way at a car dealership.  We’re primed to think of car sellers this way throughout our culture.

My wife jokes that everyone who gets a new car has their “I got a really good deal” story.  And, in my experience, it’s mostly men who tell these stories.  In this cultural narrative, the women in their lives are rolling their eyes (presumably because they’ve heard the story a few too many times).  There’s a great commercial that illustrates this cultural trope quickly.  I love showing commercials in classes to discuss interactional nuances and rituals.  Thinking about what doesn’t need to be said—what can be conveyed without talking—always involves some taken-for granted knowledge.

To really “get” the joke in this commercial, you have to know: (a) men buy cars, (b) getting a good deal on a car gives you status as a man, (c) retelling your “good deal” story is a masculinity ritual, (d) women get annoyed with men when they perform self-congratulatory masculinity rituals, (e) women’s annoyance illustrates that they do not actually give men high status for these rituals (or offer it only superficially), and (f) apparently, men are unaware of women’s collective reaction.

Of course, car salespersons and dealers want everyone to think they got a great deal.  And certainly—since you can haggle, buy at better times than others, get better rates than others, etc.—some people actually are getting those “really good deals.”  But, I have a feeling most of us are probably not—at least not the “great deals” we think we’re getting.  If you leave and you don’t feel like you “got sold,” then you likely have a “really good deal” story.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say, “Wow.  When I bought my car, I was totally duped.”  And yet, as a culture, we seem convinced that everyone else is getting duped.  And, indeed, masculinity is often presented as zero-sum: having more of “it” necessitates others having less.

Volkswagen has a great commercial that plays on this interactional ritual.  A man who just bought a Jetta gets a phone call from his wife.  He explains the “amazing deal” he got and how he “wiped the floor” with the salesperson (who’s standing right next to him by a sign that indicates that the deals the man’s claiming he haggled for with his wife come standard at Volkswagen).  He apologizes to the salesperson after the call in classic man style (“We good?”), they fist bump, and both men leave with masculinity intact since neither is understood to have attempted to actually challenge the other.

I have a great memory visiting a dealership with my dad when I was young.  A man that looked like he was in his 50s, Earl, came out to help us.  What I remember most about Earl was how much gold he was wearing (big rings on at least three fingers with thick bands, a necklace, and a watch) and that he combed his hair straight back and used some sort of product to keep it shiny and in place.  After talking inside, we walked out to look at cars.  On our way, another man walked up to Earl, said hi, slapped him on the back and then said, “Earl the Pearl.  At it again!” as he walked away.  Earl apologized for the man’s behavior to my dad and I remember my dad giving me a look that I read as, “I’m not sure I should trust Mr. Pearl.”

Earl walked off to get the keys to the car my dad selected for a test drive, and when Earl was gone, my dad looked at me and said, “Wanna’ know the secret to buying a car?”  Kids love secrets.  So, of course I nodded.  “Always be prepared to walk away.”  I can’t remember if we bought a car that day or not, but I remember learning that buying a car was a lot different than buying other kinds of things.

2 thoughts on “Doing Gender, Buying Cars

  1. Planet Money had an interesting episode about this topic a while ago: “An FBI Hostage Negotiator Buys A Car” (here). Some skills and strategies generalize across situations.

    Back in the old days, long before the Internet allowed us all sorts of information previously known only to dealers, my father’s method was to pick out the car and options he wanted and offer $X over invoice. (Maybe it was $100 – this was a long time ago.)

    The salesman (always a man back then) would insist that the deal he was offering was better blah-blah, and my father would simply say, “Show me the invoice.” That often led to, “Oh, we can’t do that, sir.” And my father would say, “Well then, I’ll find a dealer who will.” He usually did.

    • Thanks for writing, Jay. There’s more than one way to buy a car. Good for your dad! I don’t know if I’ve got that much gumption. But maybe I’d have lower car payments if I did.🙂

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