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Incivility at Trader Joe's

A couple of years ago, I bookmarked an article called “We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” by Sherry Turkle. The writer tells how she was attending a Boston Globe panel on “cyberetiquette” which included such advice as no texting at family dinner, no texting in restaurants, and don’t bring your laptop to your children’s sporting events (no matter how tempting). In short, how to be polite in a linked society.

Ms. Turkle highlighted a question from a genuinely exhausted and harassed woman in the audience who explained that as a working mother, she had very little time to talk to her friends, to email, to text, to keep up. “Actually,” she confessed, “the only time I have is at night, after I’m off work and before I go home, when I go family shopping at Trader Joe’s [a supermarket]. But the guy at the checkout line, he wants to talk. I just want to be on my phone, into my texts and Facebook. Do I have the right to just ignore him?”

Most of the panel speakers responded with sympathy and confirmed that this woman did indeed have the right to privacy and shouldn’t be disturbed as she used her smartphone during a checkout procedure.

But Ms. Turkle had a different perspective. She wrote, “I said that we all know that the job that the man at the checkout counter was doing can now be done by a machine. But until he is replaced by a machine, I think he should be treated as a person, with all the rights of a person. And that includes a bit of human exchange, since that is clearly what makes his job tolerable for him, makes him feel that in his job, this job that could be done by a machine, he is still a human being.” [Emphasis added.]

Needless to say, her answer was not exactly greeted with cries of enthusiasm and warm empathetic understanding. Instead, people didn’t want to hear it.

The fact is, people have lost the art of polite chitchat. Many people do indeed view checkout clerks and other service personnel as ambulatory machines, there to silently and efficiently perform their service function and nothing else. “We are at a moment of temptation,” writes Ms. Turkle, “ready to turn to machines for companionship even as we seem pained or inconvenienced to engage with each other in settings as simple as a grocery store.”

It reminds me of a line from Bill Bryson’s excellent book “At Home,” a fascinating history of domestic life (largely from an English perspective).

In the chapter covering domestic servants, Mr. Bryson observed that most people during the 19th century (the age of servants) were no more fond of their servants than we are today of our appliances – they were merely ambulatory machines whose sole purpose in life was to serve, tirelessly and thanklessly.

It’s an uncomfortable observation and an attitude that we, today, in our modern times, would like to claim we would never have. Until, of course, we encounter a checkout clerk or a hotel chambermaid or a garbage collector or another person whose job is to make our existence more comfortable, sanitary, or efficient.

And how do we treat them?

During a business trip to Portland, Ore., last year, I saw a sign in a Subway sandwich shop that said, “Please refrain from using cell phones during the ordering process.” That sign stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t believe there were enough people who were so busy gossiping on their phones – while the Subway workers attempted to give them service – that it was necessary to post a sign. It also made me wonder how many people ignored it.

“What once would have seemed like ‘good service,'” notes Ms. Turkle in reference to checkout clerks making polite chitchat, “is now an inconvenience. … We also want technology to step in as we invite people to step back. It used to be that we imagined that our mobile phones would be for us to talk to each other. Now, our mobile phones are there to talk to us.”

Yikes. I don’t know if I like the direction this is taking. At what point do we lock ourselves in a room with our technology and deny all human interaction because our smartphones and laptops offer us a virtual window into the outside world?

Politeness and manners – and a human touch – is the lubricant that makes our society tolerable. If we’re too tired and exhausted after a long day’s work to engage in polite chitchat with a checkout clerk – and thus make his job more tolerable and enjoyable – then we need to examine our attitude and whether or not we consider the checkout clerk to be merely a “human appliance.”

“[S]mitten with technology,” concludes Mr. Turkle, “… we don’t much want to talk about these problems. But it’s time to talk.”

We are heading into the Christmas season, a season traditionally associated with kindness toward our fellow man, generosity toward those who are less fortunate and other human touches of kindness.

But what happens? We get caught up with shopping, traffic, end-of-year work requirements and the general holiday rush. In doing so, we forget that service people (whose job it is to SERVE you) are not ambulatory machines, but real breathing human beings who deserve respect, friendliness and maybe even some polite chitchat in exchange for their service.

What it comes down to is the Golden Rule, paraphrased as “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” And frankly, I don’t know a lot of people who want to be treated like an ambulatory appliance.

Of course this works both ways. We’ve all experienced service people who feel it’s more important to talk or text on their cell phones while you’re trying to conduct a transaction.

But by and large, service people are trying to offer you service. During the next few weeks as shoppers come into contact with more service people than at any other time of year, please remember – they’re people, too, trying to make a living in a tough economy. Please treat them like real human beings, not ambulatory appliances.

And I’ll bet you’ll get some nicer service as a result.