We’ve all been there. It’s a busy afternoon at the grocery store. Running a shopping cart down the aisle is like being in the bumper car ride at the amusement park, except people aren’t smiling and having fun. Courtesy is nonexistent and everyone seems to be in his or her own little world, themselves at the center of it. Is it grocery shopping or is it the Roman gladiatorial arena? Welcome to the modern world.
But you survive the aisles and make your way to the check out area up front with your full cart only to find that there are two aisles open, and the back of both lines stretch into the grocery aisles. You wait, and wait. There’s a hold up as a price check is done. Then another hold up as someone’s credit card or debit card doesn’t go through. Or, maybe someone insists on using a coupon for an item that they were required to buy four of, but they only bought two. The whole time, you’re being jostled and trying to make sure someone doesn’t butt in line. Outside, it’s pouring rain. You still have to make dinner and do a dozen other things. There is no relaxation in site for you.
Finally, after what seems like a couple of hours, you are facing the clerk, your big load of groceries piled up on the conveyor belt. You know what would be nice? If the cashier apologized for the wait. After all, there are only two aisles open out of at least nine. Failing that, maybe she could at least acknowledge you as a human being. Smile, say hello, ask if you found everything you needed. All that standard grocery store stuff. But nothing.
Not only that, but she speaks to you rudely. Maybe she even starts complaining over your shoulder to a fellow worker about how much it sucks right now, to be working during this afternoon rush. And she’s complaining about a customer. Will she complain about you when you’re gone?
So what do you do? You could ignore it. You could be rude right back at her. You could go hunt down the manager and complain. About everything.
Or, you could do something monumental. You could handle this in a way that makes you a rebel. That’s right, you could be a grocery store rush hour rebel and do something that changes everything. At least for that moment. Changes it for you, and for the cashier.
Now, far be it for me to preach to you about how you should feel. I get just as annoyed as you do during these situations. Probably more so. I’ve worked in retail and I know a few things about keeping customers happy. You have every right to feel frustrated. But, this does not mean that you have to let your frustration and annoyance turn you into a person that you are not. Right?
Perhaps the ignore option is the best. You could even choose to “not sweat the small stuff” and not let all of this change your mood. You could say, “I came in here in a good mood and I’m gonna leave in a good mood.” I’m not going to let all these rude and rushed people, and this situation, dictate my mood! That’s good. I can get behind that response.
But let me tell you a little something about the retail business, and about being a grocery clerk. It can really, really suck. The pay is low. You have irregular hours, and are constantly being asked to work late or being asked to come in on your day off because someone is sick or someone quit (why do you think so few aisles are open?). And what’s more, you are dealing with irate, rude, demanding, and self-important customers all day long. You think your cashier is being rude to you this moment, but try to imagine what she deals with. Often, people feel powerless, for the most part, in their everyday lives. One of the few places where they feel they can exercise some control, and exert some power, is in a retail establishment. Where “the customer is always right.” Where there are possible severe repercussions if the employee doesn’t take your crap with a smile on their face. I’ve been there. Maybe you have to.
Yet, that doesn’t stop me from getting caught up in my own world and feeling irritated during these situations. Makes me want to lash out, sometimes. But I discovered something. Something quite nice. Something that made my day better. And I didn’t even do it on purpose.
During one of these typical episodes like I just described, I was faced with a cashier who was behaving rudely. So I thought. Doing all the things I described. This day, though, I decided right then and there that my mood would not be dictated by this environment and this person I didn’t even know. And at that moment, something just made me smile at her, and she looked at me for a moment, and I saw this exhausted young lady. I saw this young lady with bills to pay, and mouths to feed, and pressure. Pressures I couldn’t imagine. I imagined what her day had been like. All this went through my mind in a split second, and something she had said to her co-worker in the next aisle sort of made its way in: She was supposed to have been off two hours ago. And she wasn’t getting off. I could see that. She was there until closing, barring a miracle. Suddenly, anger was not an option. Frustration was not an option. We’ve all got stress, we’ve all got pains, and sometimes, we all express it negatively. She was having one bad moment in a very bad day.
So, I’m smiling, but it’s a sympathetic smile. And I ask, “When were you supposed to get off?” And she tells me she was supposed to be out by 6PM. It’s now 8PM. “Ah, man,” I say, “That sucks.” She nodded and smiled a little, in a tired way. I continue to look her in the eye, and I finally notice she is wearing a splint on her hand. How could I not have noticed this? Probably carpal tunnel type of thing from handling the groceries all day long. “And I’ll bet your hand hurts too,” I say. “Yeah, it’s killing me.” She has to pick up a bag of flour two-handed with her palms, so as to avoid grasping it too hard. “I’m sorry, I say. You must be having a pretty rough day.”
Suddenly, it’s as if the sun comes out. She IS having a rough day. But she beams. She shines on me, and I shine back. That rude cashier is suddenly this very sweet smiling young lady, and something wonderful has happened. I’ve made her feel better. A little empathy and it’s like a huge weight is lifted off her shoulders. She even stands up straighter. Now, as she continues to scan my items and finish up my purchase, we chat pleasantly. It seems like the bad day is forgotten. She is laughing when I tell her, no, I’m not going to eat the canned boiled peanuts shell and all. Does she dare me? It’s tempting to say that I made her day better, but the truth is, we made each other’s day better. I pay, and we finish up exchanging the standard pleasantries, and, as I walk away pushing my cart-load of bags in front of me, I hear her greeting the next customer in line: Happily and enthusiastically.
It is easy to assume that when another person is behaving rudely, it is because they are simply a rude person. In other words, they are rude because they are always rude. It is a characteristic. In social psychology, this is known as the fundamental attribution error. Attribution (attribution theory), describes how we explain or interpret another person’s behavior. The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to attribute their behaviors or actions to internal traits rather than to external influences.
Sometimes, this attribution may be accurate. Some people really are just rude and grumpy, pretty much all the time. But in this situation, I chose not to assume that my cashier was a rude person, and instead, I chose to believe that she was being negatively affected by circumstances. Her behavior did not reflect an internal trait of rudeness. This simple, and quite painless, choice made all the difference in the world. Because I did not just walk away having maintained my mood (and she hers). I walked away having elevated it.
Our connections to each other as human beings are growing ever more tenuous. Any time we can work to strengthen and re-forge those fundamental connections, the world, to me, has a chance of getting just a little bit better.
I did not write this to make excuses for rude behavior. I am offering my perspective and my personal experience. Sometimes, when people are acting rudely, they should be called out. I do not wish to say otherwise. But, sometimes, with only a minimal amount of effort, as I’ve discovered, we can turn rudeness on its head! They used to say that honey catches more flies, but that implies manipulation. I am not talking about manipulating another person. If you find yourself feeling the way I did that day, and the way I do now, maybe you’ll reach out, and maybe you too, will discover that a bad day doesn’t get better because you express your anger. Sure, you may feel better for a moment, but you’ll feel even worse, later. Unless you are just a total a-hole. I’ll bet you’re not, though! Not even close, or you wouldn’t have gotten all the way to this paragraph!