Working with the public is weird. Also, annoying and interesting and sometimes crazy. One thing that it can do is suck out all your compassion, trample it with horses, then shove it into a garbage disposal before spitting it out into a dirty litter box. So sometimes what some of us retail, minimum-wage workers do is just turn off our empathy and compassion while we’re dealing with customers. It’s easier to just not care about anyone rather than risk your emotions on an unruly customer.
At the same time, we’re human and can’t really turn off our emotions all the way. We DO care about our customers (at least all the people I’ve worked with do). We want you to have a good experience in our store/restaurant/etc. because… well, because why should we wish misery upon you? We want to save you money, that’s why we ask about coupons, discount cards, if you saw our sales, etc. We want you to have a good time in our establishment because if our roles were reversed we would hope you’d treat us the same way. Most of us also have a vested interest in building up the company we work for, not just for the paycheck but because we are part of it so we want it to do well.
I had a woman come up to my register and she asked how I was. Small talk. Meh. I go between a short, honest answer and a “fine” (which is usually still honest). This time I went with a short, “I’m tired. Had a late night.” Short, to the point, innocuous. She responded that she was also tired. Because she had just driven all night. Getting back from a funeral. A funeral for a 17 year old girl. A 17 year old girl who was killed by a drunk driver. I could see how much pain she was in. Her eyes were already tearing up just mentioning it. That hurt me. I had no response. I was so blindsided by her words and her pain. I cared. I cared even though the way I quickly wrapped up the transaction might say otherwise. I cared even though I couldn’t say anything to console her.
I care about customers. I’d say every one of my coworkers cares. But we also don’t care. Like, yeah, that woman broke my heart but part of me was also thinking, “I didn’t know this 17 year old and I don’t know you. People die every day. Why did you taint my whole day with this negativity?” I didn’t care about this stranger’s pain almost as much as I did care about it.
I like to think I’m a loving and compassionate person but at the same time, working in retail there’s this weird limbo you live in where you do care about customers as people and also you hate them a little bit.
I don’t care that your last pair of headphones broke five minutes after buying them. I don’t care that you really don’t like this one particular author. And while I don’t mean to be callous, I don’t care that it’s the anniversary of a death in the family, or divorce, or literally any other depressing life event. If it’s clearly busy in the store and you want to sit around discussing book reviews with me, I’m gonna walk away as fast as possible. If the store is not busy and you want to sit around discussing book reviews then I will be happy to do that with you. It’s a little different than just small talk because it’s about actually seeing the customer as a human person and not just part of your pay check.
Whether or not I care about you as a customer is really dependent on how the rest of the store is holding up. If there’s a line, I don’t care. I need to keep everyone moving along and whether you seem like a great person I’d like to be friends with or not, I don’t care about you or anything you have to say. I care about the money you’re spending and that’s about it. But if the store is fine then I can take a moment to see you as a real person who has their own lives, hopes, and dreams. Just like me.
Currently Reading: Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw (I’m less than 200 pages from the end, it’s a bit longer than I remembered)