Bathroom Associates

Ever hear a word and then puzzle over it as it seeps deep into the unprotected, and overly curious depths of your brain?

Story of my life.

Yesterday I happened to see a sign in a public restroom of a store which read "All Associates must wash their hands before returning to work." You've seen similar signs no doubt. Urging employees to not do the unthinkable and exit the washroom without washing. But as I pondered the sign I began to really wonder about the word 'Associate.' Who was an Associate? What was an Associate? In this case, a lower level worker who was reduced to using the public restroom before returning to work. Or perhaps also it was also a reminder to any high-level managers and directors who came breezing through to continue the excellent tradition of hand washing which this company so highly cherished. Associate to me meant only 'loosely connected with.' Therefore anyone who was 'associated' with the company must needs wash their hands. But of course, even customers are associated with the company via there financial interactions and therfore they too should wash their hands per the sign's urging.

"Why," I puzzled to myself, "do they call them 'Associates?' What are they associated with? What does "Associate" even mean?

Webster says:
Main Entry: 1as·so·ci·ate
Pronunciation: &-'sO-shE-"At, -sE-
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): -at·ed; -at·ing
Etymology: Middle English associat associated, from Latin associatus, past participle of associare to unite, from ad- + sociare to join, from socius companion -- more at SOCIAL
transitive senses
1 : to join as a partner, friend, or companion
2 obsolete : to keep company with : ATTEND
3 : to join or connect together : COMBINE
4 : to bring together or into relationship in any of various intangible ways (as in memory or imagination)
intransitive senses
1 : to come or be together as partners, friends, or companions
2 : to combine or join with other parts : UNITE

Which sounds downright pleasant and jolly, doesn't it? "Join as partner, friend, companion, to keep company with..." all sounds great, idyllic, wonderful. Now, think of how it's used in modern times. Business Associate, Taco Artist Associate, Associate Waste Management Liason, etc. I myself was a Sales Associate in my early years for Hallmark. Which meant that I stood at the cash register to ring out sales, or I straightened the cards when there were no customers there to ring out. Why 'associate?' And why was it being used as a euphamism for people earning minimum wage?

As a noun it means:
Main Entry: 3as·so·ciate
Pronunciation: same as 2
Function: noun
1 : one associated with another: as a : PARTNER, COLLEAGUE b : COMPANION, COMRADE
2 a : an entry-level member (as of a learned society, professional organization, or profession) b : EMPLOYEE, WORKER
3 often capitalized : a degree conferred especially by a junior college <associate in arts>

Entry level worker. That's the one that gets me. It's almost an insult. But entry level workers are not the only ones getting the 'associate' diss. One company I worked with strung their employees on for months and years without decent promotions by tacking the word 'Associate' into their title. 'Associate Vice President of BlahBlah' which meant not a Vice President. 'Associate Director of Finance Reform' which means not a director.

Then, as I pondered all these things, there in that concrete bathroom, drying my hands under a hand dryer, I had another thought.. "Isn't associate used in psychological terms some times?" Associative in Psychobabble refers "understanding that two different events occur or happen together." Like ringing out customers at the cash register and then finding that while they were there they messed up all the cards. I quickly learned to associate the two events. One cause, one effect, both happen together. That is what is called Associative Learning. Which I learned as an Associate. So, that means I was truly doing my job. I was an Associate - a companion, friend, new low level employee - who associated customers with mindless work like card reorginization and cashiering.

In Psycho-World 'associate' can also refer to disorders, but instead of putting things together in the mibd, disorders tear them apart. So they added 'dis' and shortened the whole thing to 'dissociative.' Point in Fact: Dissociative Identity Disorder. Which means you can't remember who you are and create other personalities to deal with trauma from the past. So in the world of coconut crackers, associate or dissociate can be used to refer to really bad things which you may or may not remember.

So, how does one word travel so far and get into so many diverse situations? It claims to be at once a companion and friend, it is a lowly entry-level worker or a high-level executive, and it is the brain's internal processes battling it out for identity and understanding.

'Associate' is a bit of a whore linguistically, I think. It really has gotten around.

What do you associate with the word 'associate?'

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Blogger Tara said...

When I call someone my "associate", I think of them as my coworker. I like the name better than "coworker" for some reason. I'll use it in a sentence:

"You recently spoke to one of my associates regarding the sign in the bathroom."

7/3/06 16:10  
Blogger Worldgineer said...

For some reason I think of lawyers. Perhaps it's the clear line between being a Partner (you're equal, someone you are close to and share things with) and Associate (someone that works for us and whom we can fire if we so much as dislike their hair style). I wonder if there is some Associate to Partner ritual that happens when one crosses over - like a corporate marriage.

7/3/06 17:00  
Blogger Steve DeGroof said...

I noticed a few years ago that places like Target and Walmart started calling their employees "associates". Lately, my employer has been refering to us as "associates". It makes me feel real special.

7/3/06 19:00  
Blogger Afro Assault said...

"Homey." Seriously.

"Yo, dissa my homey," is interchangable with "Me and my associates," for me anywho. Dunno why, maybe it was just some bizarre Utah slang.

8/3/06 06:28  

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