‘Not much’ is not enough for an authentic discourse

Routines can be our best teachers. For me, it’s grocery shopping: load the shopping cart, pay, load the car, squeeze in a few more errands, unload the car, load the refrigerator and finally reheat some leftovers before low-blood sugar sets in and my teenager complains “there’s nothing good to eat”.

Within this mundane, the check-out line is my one opportunity for something more personally engaging and meaningful. That is until the bagger or checker asks me the exact question I’ve heard hundreds of times before: “what do you have planned for the rest of your day?”

Recently my friend and I discussed our frustration with rehearsed service encounters and I brought up my grocery store experience. We agreed scripted lines make us feel irritated and disconnected. We conceded, of course we could show more compassion. And yes, it’s not only a grocery store encounter which might lack authenticity. And true, the check-out counter wait is neither brief enough for mere politeness nor long enough for real discovery. But our conversation ended without a solution to our disconnection. For weeks I was feeling helpless. Until one day at the gas station with post-grocery shopping blues and I imagining the world nonchalantly going by and everyone feigning pleasantries, did my apathy finally turn to anger. I glared at the one-armed gas pumps and declared: “We can do better than this! We have real problems we need to talk about!”

Psychologists in the service industry call customer service encounters “emotional labor.” Bradley, et al in “Service Encounter Needs Theory: A Dyadic, Psychosocial Approach to Understanding Service Encounters” determined when our psychosocial needs like empathy, autonomy, relatedness or self-actualization were not met we can experience strong emotional conflict. OK, that’s me. But ultimately I know getting my needs met is my responsibility not the baggers’. Yet how to respond when for the umpteenth time I get asked: “what do you have planned for today?” Mumble “not much” then turn to my smart phone? Offer some quirky comment? Or simply list my plans.

Online I couldn’t find an answer, but my insight began to formulate: I believe the greater issue at stake is scripted encounters are symptomatic of our society valuing customer satisfaction over authentic discourse, of placating the consumer at the expense of the voice of the citizen. So again I went grocery shopping but this time with an agenda.

As I rolled my loaded cart to the checker, I braced myself. He was polite, said little and scanned the items. I waited. It was only when he pushed my cart towards me and said “have a nice day” did I realize I was so caught up in my expectations of something scripted, I was unprepared and thus silent. Ah ha! I want a real encounter but I’m not able to initiate it?

So I did my homework. I looked up why the price of eggs has risen, if self-check-out lines are successful and do grocery stores have a policy of buying local produce.

A week later while wandering the aisles, my phone rang. I talked and shopped. At the check-out line I continued to chat. While the checker bagged my groceries, I kept my phone to my face. Only when she handed me my receipt did I realize my enormous faux-pas. “I’m so sorry. That was so rude of me,” I said. She glanced as if both annoyed and resigned. I knew the feeling. I sheepishly smiled and as I departed said, “have a nice day,” knowing full well she would not realize how sincerely I meant it.

Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy, works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.


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