Saturday, March 11, 2006

Have a nice day?

I’ve just returned from spending a week in Colorado and whilst I was there my local store for the duration was a Seven Eleven a few blocks away. On my first visit the woman behind the counter greeted me with a “hi how are you?” I had to smile as I remembered that awkward feeling you always get in the US the first time this happens. Do I respond? Is this a rhetorical question? Why is she asking me this? Like all English people I mumbled a half hearted reply and looked away, embarrassed by the intimacy of the exchange. Each day I returned the lady behind the counter became more and more effusive, asking me where I was from, offering advice and always with a cheery hello and good bye. I began to study both her and the people in the store each morning, all of them said good morning they chatted and there was a real sense of caring. I was beginning to suspect that the people of Lakewood, perhaps because of its size, really were genuinely nice people, almost a breed apart, from those back home and even, from those in the large US cities. A whole town of genuinely nice people who cared about their neighbours? Was this Stepford transported to Colorado? For the life of me if this was fake, I couldn’t see the joins.

Then a few days into my trip I went to the local Wal Mart, this cavernous, ludicrously cheap store was the size of a small town and I felt sure that here, where the staff are barely on more than minimum wage and their employers famously scrimp on benefits, I would find shop assistants with long faces, short tempers and attitude, just like we have at home. Unbelievably, the staff were helpful, cheery, smiling and eager to help. This strange behaviour was repeated in Target, McDonalds and every other chain store and restaurant. By the last day of my trip I was convinced that in fact, people in small town America are kinder, better raised and more polite and genuine, than anyone you encounter in Europe. Then just as I was sucked into this myth, on my last trip to the Seven Eleven, my assistant (Leanne) was just finishing with her customer (a difficult old lady) she was kind & patient with the woman and then I caught it. As the woman left her face fell, the eyes rolled and look of hatred crossed her face. I was shocked and as our eyes met she looked flustered and almost scared and I felt embarrassed as though I had seen her inappropriately dressed (in a Freudian slip perhaps!?) Almost immediately the mega-watt smile was re-applied and everything was back to normal. I felt so relieved! These people are not better than us, these people are just so scared of losing their minimum wage job and its lousy health benefits that they will gladly erase all traces of their own personality and become a Stepford employee just like their corporate bosses want. These people don’t want to be helpful, cheerful and kind necessarily, they are just scared not to.

When I got home I went to my local store for milk. The girl at the counter was chatting on her mobile as she looked up she gave me a look of complete disdain, how dare you interrupt my conversation, it said. She practically hurled my change at me and then just turned her nose up and went back to her conversation……….and I’ve never been more happy to be treated so rudely by someone in my life.

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