My interactions with the cashier at the grocery store can be awkward. When I use the word awkward I mean "socially uncomfortable and possibly confusing." When I walk up to the cashier's desk at the grocery store, I am normally excited about whatever food I am buying before hearing a perfunctory greeting by the cashier. At this point I have a choice between behaving in an efficient, yet solemnly cold manner to get through checkout line for the sake of time. Option two is to attempt to acknowledge them some manner whether that be making eye contact, answering whatever question they've asked me or attempting to engage in small talk. The second option of acknowledgement is more difficult, but I believe it is the right choice when I walk to the checkout line.
Why does it seem more difficult to acknowledge the cashier? Why can I quickly go into a detached, impersonal mood so easily in this situation? I would argue that it has to do with how we view those working in the service industry. Writer Jonathan Franzen explains this kind of the cashier-customer interaction in the following story where the cell phone can be used to avoid "direct interaction":
"One currently worsening national plague is the shopper who remains engrossed in a call throughout a transaction with a checkout clerk. The typical combination in my own neighborhood, in Manhattan, involves a young white woman, recently graduated from someplace expensive, and a local black or Hispanic woman of roughly the same age but fewer advantages. It is, of course, a liberal vanity to expect your checkout clerk to interact with you or to appreciate the scrupulousness of your determination to interact with her. Given the repetitive and low-paying nature of her job, she’s allowed to treat you with boredom or indifference; at worst, it’s unprofessional of her. But this does not relieve you of your own moral obligation to acknowledge her existence as a person. And while it’s true that some clerks don’t seem to mind being ignored, a notably large percentage do become visibly irritated or angered or saddened when a customer is unable to tear herself off her phone for even two seconds of direct interaction."
Franzen's story puts on display the first option I've described which makes it acceptable to be subtly rude to those serving customers. The cell phone lady mention above might think "the customer is always right" and say that the cashier is serving her. Yet at what point did we consider it acceptable to ignore the existence of others?
I don't think I've ever talked on my phone and ignored a cashier, but I have behaved in a solemn way hoping that the cashier will work faster. It might be called "the serious, potentially disgruntled customer face," which can be used in hopes it will speed the process up. Why does this face seem acceptable? There are a few reasons why I think we sometimes, as Franzen says, ignore our moral obligations to speak to others.
One reason is because the retail cashier can be considered to be less of a person because he or she is in a service job. Working a minimum wage service job, whether we want to admit it or not, can subconsciously make us feel we are better than those working as cashiers. Part of this is because the idea of "serving" others is not thought of as honorable in 2015 as it was in the past. The job description of a cashier is to become a servant of the customer. But while this is obvious, it seems that many people are not comfortable with being servants ourselves. Leading, managing, directing and innovating your own path are seen as the jobs with the highest esteem and respect. Somehow service jobs are seen as second best or on the way towards some position of more power and agency.
Anyone who self-identifies as a Christian, should also self-identify as a servant. Paul writes in Philippians 2:
"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
Jesus became a servant to serve other men. If a person is a Christian, he or she must think of himself as a servant of others and have the same mind of Christ in him. We are told to have the same attitude of Christ as self-identifying as a servant. God came to earth as Christ and self-identified as a servant. This can be insulting (rightly so) to any entitled attitudes that others naturally should serve us, if Jesus(who created the universe) served normal people.
A steady diet of television commercials will teach you to think of yourself as if you deserve to be served since advertisers want people to feel you deserve their service. From popular culture on television and the internet, do you ever see cashiers glorified as the ideal jobs? Retail workers? Waitresses? The Home Depot Shopping Cart Guy? (Which is a very thankless job.) Most of the "ideal jobs" seen on television are considered more managerial, office jobs.
If we have a positive view of serving others-----then jobs that are considered "lower" jobs on the hierarchy of businesses are no longer looked down upon. They have dignity and meaning. If we self-identify as servants, as Jesus did, then we be less likely to treat cashiers as if they do not exist.
My friend Brandon's interaction with the cashier at Taco Bell might illustrate one method of personal engagement. Recently I ate lunch at Taco Bell with Brandon, his wife and her friend after a 2 mile uphill hike on a Saturday morning. After we'd eaten a big meal in the dining area, Brandon gathered everyone's wrappers and trays to go throw them away. As walked to the trashcan, he said to the man standing behind the counter "Do you want me to pop your back? For real. I'll do it."
Brandon's wife and I looked at each other, surprised that he would ask a complete stranger that question. Brandon had overheard the conversation between the two cashiers behind the counters. The cashier, a 20 year old guy in a headset and Taco Bell uniform, had been complaining about his back and asked his fellow co-workers if they would pop his back (which involves you crossing your arms and then having someone stand behind you and pick you up, like a backwards bear hug).
I stood up and joined the conversation explaining that Brandon was very strong and trustworthy. But the cashier looked a little unsure as if he wondering if Brandon's bear hug might hurt him and/or if he wanted a bear hug from a stranger. Brandon persistently asked him again, explaining he was an expert. The young guy politely said "No, I am fine. Thank you though."
This story would have been complete if the cashier had trusted Brandon to pop his back. Hopefully in the future, more customers will treat this Taco Bell cashier with respect so he can gain the trust of the customer and allow a stranger to give him a bear hug. But until then, I want to cheer up the next cashier I see, even though I don't always feel up for it and may be slightly forced. Whatever the case, I hope I can offer to serve the cashier as Brandon attempts to serve Taco Bell cashiers.