I may not have gone to college this year, but cashiering at a grocery store has been its own kind of education.
For one thing, I know almost all the produce codes. My siblings like to quiz me by listing off fruits and vegetables. (Asparagus? 4080. Broccoli? Crowns are 4549 but organic is 94060. Be careful, because kale is 4627 and leeks are 4672.) It’s nice that my love of memorization is coming in handy for uses more practical than just Latin conjugations, much as I love those.
I’ve learned the intricacies of schedules and shifts—eight-and-a-half hour shifts are preferable to seven hours, because you get two breaks and lunch with a former and only one lunch with the latter. I know what it’s like to have bosses and coworkers and a place to be each day. I’ve been to diversity awareness trainings and gotten a peek at the behind the scenes of running a big grocery store.
And let me just tell you, when cashiers ask you to raise money for stuff, they dislike asking more than you dislike being asked.
Here’s another secret I’ll pass on: If a cashier or waiter or some other customer service person really makes your day, even if it’s a little thing, let someone know. Talk to the manager or leave a comment citing the person by name. You often get little bonuses when people leave comments like that. It’s really nice.
I’ve learned how exhausting standing for hours on end can be. Worse, though, is the small talk. I always knew I didn’t like it, but when I have to small talk for seven hours straight went dozens of strangers? It bleeds me dry like a giant leech. At the same time, I love connecting with people, sharing a similar experience or emotion. Those moments of connection can only be preceded by small talk, so … yay paradoxes.
Not only have I learned that customer service stuff exhausts me, I’ve had to learn how to be gracious to myself. I’ve had to learn not to look at others around me and wonder why they can handle it and I can’t. I’ve had to learn, too, that most people only seem to be handling it better than me.
Some of the lessons have been painful. Like, I’m not as good at hiding my annoyance with people as I thought. In fact, I’ve realized that sometimes I actually want people to know I am annoyed with them. Ugly stuff to uncover. All that unhealthy Enneagram 2 stuff about getting upset when people don’t appreciate you the way you think they should? Yep. I’ve seen that come spilling out of me, my pride and entitlement railing against this job I consider beneath me and the customers who don’t respond to my help the way I expect.
At the same time, I’ve learned a lot about undeserved grace. Like when my favorite customer comes through my line on a particularly bad day or when my manager handed me a customer compliment right after I’d been short and grumpy with someone. Like when I stumble out to my car and the golden afternoon sunlight softens over my clenched shoulders and smiles on my clenched jaw.
But the lessons that will stick with me the most are the ones about other people. Guys, people are so different. Seriously. Some customers fling their things on the belt with a perilous abandon, oblivious of eggs and bread and fish juice leaking everywhere. Others carefully arrange everything by size and temperature, slowly handing me their carefully packed bags at the end of the process. Some customers chatter on about their weekend plans while others seem deeply offended that I inquire. I could go on and on. Sometimes it’s frustrating, all these quirks, but other times it makes me smile and thank God that he gave us more colorful varieties than the peppers in the produce section.
Here’s what else I’ve learned:
• Look people in the eye. Really, it’s a surprisingly rare occurrence and yeah, it does feel a little shocking and awkward sometimes but mostly it’s beautiful.
• Use people’s names. My dad always does this when he interacts with people with nametags, and I’ve seen the way their faces light up in happy surprise. Now that I’m on the other end, it’s really true: hearing my name spoken makes me feel like more than a cog in the retail machine, an extension of the conveyor-belt-credit-card contraption I man. It makes me feel like a real person. It makes me feel seen and valued.
• Your mood impacts other people’s moods. When I’m having a grumpy day and a customer answers my routine inquiry of “How are you?” with an enthusiastic and genuine “I’m doing great, thank you! How are you?” it lifts my mood. I suddenly realize that I actually am doing well too.
• You don’t know what other people are going through. Once this elderly man was complaining loudly at self-checkout, and I was annoyed, like, if it’s so hard to use why are you here? His wife said to me quietly, “I’m sorry. He’s in a lot of pain.” There was pain in her face, too, as she watched him. Sometimes when I’m not as enthusiastic with a customer as I should be, it’s because the customer before gave me a hard time or because my arms are hurting and that makes me afraid. You just don’t know.
• Entitlement ruins everything. When I started my job, I was joyful about it because it was such an answer to prayer and it was so much better than my last job. Later, when I started comparing myself to friends at college or at more specialized jobs, or when I compared myself to where I thought I would be, disappointment and envy soured my mood. Work became a drudgery, a chore. When I saw it as a gift, I loved it.
They are all good lessons. But if I want to remember one thing, it is this:
The customers who are the most appreciative and kind and courteous are the ones paying with food stamps.
The people who show the most concern for my arm in its carpal tunnel brace are the elderly who have far more pressing medical concerns themselves.
The ones who barely speak English have eyes and smiles that say thank you the loudest.
And it’s the people I least expect—the grumpy businessman, the flustered mom, the worn-looking woman in raggedy clothes—that are the most generous in giving donations.