Saturday, August 19, 2006

She seemed like a reasonable woman

The customer in front of me in line at the Trader Joe’s grocery store this afternoon was an interesting personality study.

I didn’t take much note of her at first. All that registered was her light grey hair, worn in a no-nonsense, chin-length style, and the unusual pattern of her sleeveless blouse in shades of orange.

This customer began taking her groceries out of the cart and piling them at the checkout. At Trader Joe’s, the usual procedure is that the checker pulls your shopping cart behind the counter and takes everything out, ringing up items as s/he goes, and then quickly and efficiently bags everything while you’re paying.

The checker politely asked the woman to stop unloading the cart and allow her to handle the bagging. (There is very little room at the customer’s end of the counter.) Customer explained, nicely, that she was late for an appointment. Checker responded that things would go faster as soon as she was done with the previous customer and could empty the cart herself.

Customer kept unloading groceries, repeating that she was in a hurry and was trying to help. Checker kept pointing out that this was not helpful. They finally achieved a sort of stalemate, probably because there was no more room to stack anything. Customer said, in a mildly offended tone, “OK, I’ll just stand here and do nothing.”

Checker suggested that Customer could bag the groceries, that this might speed things along a little. “Oh, I’m not a professional bagger,” Customer said. “None of us are,” Checker answered, even more politely, with only the tiniest roll of her eyes.

Customer then proceeded to 1) caution Checker not to make any bag too heavy, as she had an injured back, 2) repeatedly and emphatically tell another employee who stepped up -- either to bag or to run interference, I couldn’t tell -- that they should stop moving items around in the store because she couldn’t find anything, 3) state that she never shopped in this store, and 4) offer a faux apology for “just trying to help.”

The entire conversation was conducted in calm, measured tones. If you didn’t listen to the content, you’d think they were chatting about the weather, or the price of Trader Giotto’s Marinara Sauce.

The peculiar part was the insistence of Customer that she WAS, actually, helping. It was as if she wanted to force Checker to retract her previous statement and express thanks for the interference.

I wondered about Customer. Is this a woman who always has to be right? Is she a little confused? (If she “never” shopped at this store, how did she know they were rearranging it?) Is she always so passively aggressive, or does she only pick on people who are in no position to tell her off?

To be fair, Checker also seemed intent on making Customer admit that she was being a pain in the derriere. At one point, when Customer was gone and Checker was waiting on me, she said quietly, to no one in particular, “I just don’t feel like arguing with anyone today.” I said nothing but thought: So don’t argue. Why do you have to be right? She might have sent Customer on her way a little faster if she’d smilingly agreed to everything Customer said while doing it her own way as best she could.

When I waited tables in college and graduate school, it was drilled into me that the first order of business was to pleasantly do all that was in my power to make the customer happy. If that didn’t work, I was to summon a manager and hand the problem over to him or her. The manager has more power and, ultimately, more responsibility. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to argue with even the most flaming idiot. I wasn’t getting paid enough to do that.

All I can say is: Be gentle with each other, folks.

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