I’ve been in direct sales – specifically, multi-level marketing – for many years. It started with Cutco knives. I remember being 19 and knowing nothing, but being pregnant and looking for some flexible income while I went to school (and let’s face it, Oldest’s bio dad preferred video games to picking up extra shifts). That was my first experience with direct sales toxic happy culture, as a soft-spoken white man in a crisp shirt and snazzy tie talked to us about the importance of a positive attitude – the single most important component of success. Attitude is aptitude! If your attitude falters, so too does your income stream. Sadly, that ended with the death of my car at the time, and a bit of confusion at the front office that led to not getting paid. That had nothing to do with my mindset, though.
This was true at my last romance company. I believed them when they said anyone could make it to be a million-dollar team leader. I believed them when they said all I had to do was ask for parties and invite people to join my team. I believed them when they said people want these parties and would pay money to own these items. And if they didn’t? Either I needed to tweak my sales technique or “Haha! They don’t get to have an orgasm!” is the attitude I needed to have.
When I started doing research on why “silicone” toys melted, I was met with resistance. I discovered Dangerous Lilly’s blog, where she talked about what toys were made out of. Were we putting customers at risk? No, I was told. This was just some alarmist. When we started getting Lelos, I championed carrying the Mona 2 because Epiphora. No, we have the Ina 2, and even though a lot of people don’t like it, we can always offer them a discount on a different vibe and get the commissionable volume for it. I discovered the prices at SheVibe and other online shops were way cheaper. They said customers are paying for our expertise and you can’t really put a price on that.
Expertise, however, has always been an afterthought. I remember people panicking over how a male toy ended up in a customer’s colon because it didn’t have a proper flange. New reps wondered what to tell customers about lube allergies (because glycerin & parabens are in all but 2 of their lubes). They asked how to “deal with” lesbians and gay men at parties. Once, a rep shared a photo from a customer showing a toy covered in vag gunk with thousands of other consultants on a Facebook group. Everyone laughed at the customer – she spent $140 on an item she didn’t know how to clean. Granted, that toy came with a manual, but I’m not sure it specifically stated to clean the toy both before and after use. As I became more sex positive, the sex negativity seemed to get worse. While the company taught how to sell, we had to learn sex ed from promotional flyers and company blog posts written by home office staffers whose primary job was graphic design.
When reps would complain about a lack of parties, they were encouraged to “tell a new story” or “create a new mantra” or fix their attitude because it’s what’s in their mind that’s holding them back. They were told to seek outside training or read The Secret. You know what all direct sales training has in common? CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s an established technique that you can learn just about anywhere, but direct sales coaches make a boatload on pretending it’s a new thing. It backfires sometimes, though, when neophyte representatives state a fact, “I’m having trouble booking parties,” the answer is always “That’s because you keep saying you can’t book parties.” Where CBT stops working, the creepy starts to come out.
Keep a smile on your face. The problem is you. You’re not happy enough. You aren’t thinking positively enough. You’re too negative. If you weren’t such a failure at being happy, your business would be successful. That sounds like a work culture you want to be involved with, right?
That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the toxic happy. Did I mention the company’s director of sales & field development is a certified hypnotist? So when she touted $1,000 parties regularly in Las Vegas before the housing crash and that she did 7 parties per week with only 1 day off, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities – for a trained hypnotist. People were actively encouraged to sacrifice to meet goals in ways that were astoundingly inappropriate. One of the top leaders was praised for manning a booth at a bridal fair while hemorrhaging after a miscarriage. Another was applauded for making sales the day after giving birth and doing parties that week. Yet another won a crown and a shitton of other free stuff for stuffing down her feelings after her father died and winning the award in his honor. “Fake it till you make it” is a saying in the direct sales industry.
It’s essentially ableist. It pretends no one is mentally ill. It assumes those people won’t seek a job in direct sales, or that CBT will automatically be the answer to “getting in your own way” as a popular training branded it. It disregarded the need for qualified clinicians in someone’s life, because asking for help for emotional disabilities is weakness, of course.
I am still skittish today about the whole toxic happy culture. If you’re in it, and you wear the fake smile, and you know deep down that being happy is not always the answer, I see you. I hear you. I know what it’s like. They’re wrong. Sometimes it is your market. Sometimes it is your product. Sometimes pretending to be happy won’t get you what you want. It’s ok to admit that.