A visit to McDonald’s: Naturalised Interactional Routines and Common Sense

In preparation for my thesis I’m reading about Critical Language Study (CLS), which is crystallising how ‘common sense’ is substantially ideological (Fairclough, 2000). Contained in any notion of ‘common sense’ is an implicit philosophy and therefore ideology – this rooted in Gramsci.

I want to take this notion of ‘common sense’ and apply it to a recent visit to McDonald’s. Two things:

1) Yes, I occasionally partake of the negligibly nutritional nourishment offered by this American corporation, and part of the sudden alliteration and length of words is an attempt to claw back ‘respectability’.

2) Stick with me. It’s interesting and valid, I swear.

For someone brought up in London, a visit to McDonald’s is simple and ‘common sense’. You walk in, walk to the front, consider which ‘Extra Value’ meal (or non-meal item) you want and order. There’s a script (or ‘interactional routine’ to use the parlance of CLS) which you have not been taught, but just know. You’ll offer your choice of meal and size, they’ll then ask for your choice of drink and whether you want it for here or take away (or *shiver* ‘to go’). It’s all incredibly trivial and obvious (or ‘naturalised’) for many young city-dwellers, such that the notion that someone could fail to understand it is alien. But in a late night visit to McDonald’s last month, I witnessed precisely that, and from someone who was almost certainly younger than me (perhaps 18 or 19) and thus has grown up with the entrenched presence McDonald’s for the entirety of his life.

I first became aware of the two young men to my left as my mind wandered, waiting for the delivery of my value meal, and I heard one explaining to the other:

‘So, because you have a student card, you get a free Cheeseburger with your meal. You just need to show your student card.’

The other however, didn’t seem to get it, so after a minute or two of further fumbling (which included offering to let someone else order whilst they negotiated the intricacies of the menu), I heard him say to the cashier, ‘Could I order for my friend? Only he doesn’t really understand what’s going on.’ He proceeded to request a large Chicken Legend meal while his friend stood to the side trying to keep out of it – all he did was show his student card when prompted and even here he made to give his card to the cashier before being brushed away – of course, you only need to show it. Unfortunately, the cashier then informed him that they didn’t have any more Chicken Legends, so the poor friend, still looking lost, wandered over to the menu on the side of the wall where he had stood before and started poring over it, eyes screwed up in concentration. The text seemed as impenetrable to him as might a policy document to the cashier behind the counter (although who knows, given the current jobs climate, they’re probably an Oxbridge graduate). After a short while, he turned to his friend and asked, his eyes screwed up in total confusion and speaking with an insulted air of shaken complacency, ‘What’s a “McChicken Sandwich”?’ At this stage, my meal was ready, so not wishing to make my eavesdropping too apparent, I collected my take-away bag and left them to it.

It’s worth adding that the accents and overall appearance of the two friends implied that they were from quite wealthy backgrounds, which makes it easier to understand that they might not be frequent visitors to restaurants operated by the fine establishment that is the Golden Arches. What it revealed, however, is how the interactional routine of a visit to McDonald’s is ‘naturalised’ within most of today’s youth, despite quite clearly being artificial. As Fairclough argues, ‘common sense elements are ‘spontaneously’ foregrounded … where there is a sufficiently large social or cultural divide between participants in an exchange … for the arbitrariness and social relativity of the common sense of one to be evident to others,’ (2000, p. 106). In this case, ordering fast food is an aspect of consumer capitalist culture that has become ingrained in city life for many people today. These sharp challenges to our naturalised interactional routines demonstrate their arbitrariness in a way which we otherwise complacently take for granted.

What can we learn from this? As someone pointed out to me, the fact that this poor guy didn’t understand McDonald’s at all could be taken as quite a good thing for his health! But it is also a microcosmic way of challenging our acceptance a model of food which is the epitome of capitalism – everything from the global recognition of the brand to the relentless efficiencies in the production of each burger and ordering procedure. A different perspective on this might look at how McDonald’s presents itself in different countries – this French advert for McDonald’s is inescapably heart-warming and brilliantly made (in particular by making the viewer the heteronormative one, thus turning the tables on the criticisms often made of corporate adverts), but attempting to see it as a benevolent attempt to improve the acceptance of gay people across the world is highly flawed, because that would necessitate such adverts existing across the globe. In reality, McDonald’s is measuring the national zeitgeist and responding to it in a carefully calculated way – causing minimum controversy but maximum PR.

Ultimately, snapping out of the naturalisation of these interactional discourses allows us to see them more clearly for what they are, challenge our acceptance and use of them, and thus gain a clearer idea of what is ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’. As with many things, a tangible challenge to complacent practice is the best way of challenging their ingrained nature.

On a separate note, I’m happy to contract myself out to offer consultancy on ordering of fast food from any major chain!