Supermarket Smiles

The difference between kind, attentive, patient people and rude, arrogant, and inconsiderate people is perspective: people’s lives exist beyond the exchanges we have with each other.

Everyone has alone time. Everyone has a personal to-do list. Everyone has insecurities.

I was at the store when I sensed the contrast, waiting in line for the deli. A woman cut in front of me, and I didn’t mind too much because I could spare a few minutes and she looked hurried. She was not, however, decisive when she asked the lady behind the display for her meal. She changed her order three times, never noticing the annoyed look on the deli lady’s face because she wasn’t making eye contact.

When I go to the store, I keep in mind that everyone there has some kind of life different from my own. We’re meeting for brief moments of each others’ stories for that day. I’m running errands, but the deli lady and the guy at the checkout line will be there for several hours, working a shift.

To the woman who didn’t see a person on the other side of that display, the lady was just a machine, a means to an end. I don’t see the same thing when I look at people. I often get caught staring, wondering what people’s lives are like beyond what I can see. I know the brief interaction with a person isn’t the only part of them that exists.

That’s why, when I go through the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant on occasion, it doesn’t matter how rushed I am because that person also lives 168 hours a week like I do. I try to smile and ask how he’s doing when I hand him some cash and he hands me my change, because I don’t just see a person who exists for thirty seconds. I see an eight-hour shift doing this menial job because this teenager has something that requires money.

The people in my life who are most inconsiderate and demanding are those who don’t realize my life exists beyond our brief interactions. It’s such a simple concept, I’m having trouble explaining it: everyone has a life, and is living that life. Maybe they’re not living their dreams, maybe they’re disappointed, maybe they’re not as far along as others. That doesn’t make them worth something less. Rude and demanding people have lost their curiosity about the livelihood of other people.

There’s a hierarchy to losing this perspective: even people who once worked in retail, and have since climbed the chain of command are hard on retail workers. Suddenly (or not so suddenly, as the case may be), retail workers aren’t people with lives anymore. They’re just low-income salaries that will be replaced by machines soon, and deserve no more interaction than a machine would get.

Stop this. Smile at people because you might be the only one in ten to smile back, and they’re going to be stuck there for several hours after you’ve gotten hungry again. Do it because everyone, no matter where they land in the chain of command, could be having a hard day. Do it because you’re not an insensitive jerk who figures people aren’t doing anything with their time except when they’re doing something for you.

All it takes is some curiosity, imagination, and perception to realize every other person has more going on than the brief interactions we get with them.

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  • Guest

    I really enjoyed this one, Cynthia. Usually, I’m on the other side of things. I have done customer service jobs over half of my life, and I often remind myself that the people I talk to every day are human beings with a life and a story. It’s easy to get caught up in the job, and to think of each customer as just another problem to be solved or just another burden.

  • Bekah

    Great post! It’s so true, and as someone who often worked in customer service, I know that the few people who take the time to be nice really made my day better!

  • Guest

    love it :)

  • Dano

    love it

  • Kay Em

    i used to work in BPO and i encountered Western customers who are mostly arrogant and rude when talking to customer service. But at the end of the day, i just think that maybe they are going through a hard day. so instead of shouting back at them, asking them how they were doing or everything is well for them, well somehow make them feel better that other people are also caring for them. so basically im on the other side of things. :)