Making Small Talk....

For the few months I've been employed as a cashier, I've had time to observe several psychological and social quirks present in customer service (you know I couldn't just stand there, bag groceries and pester folks about applying for credit cards).

First off is the issue of small talk itself. Personally I hate it--I mean let's be honest, when a customer asks how you doing, do they truly want to know? Nine times out of ten they're just doing what they've been taught to do in social situations. And the same goes for me--customers could care less about the inner most thoughts of my psyche or any personal problems I could be experiencing. The goal is to get in, get out and get on with our lives. Anyone who's ever worked in a grocery store, shopping, or the hellish world of fast food know's what I'm talking about. Out of all the customers you served, how many of them have you had an honest conservation in which you actually learned something about each other? Probably not too many. In my view the primary purpose of small talk is to make sure the customer doesn't walk away thinking both you and subsequently the store are raging assholes worthy of a lawsuit or a complaint.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think it's cool to be rude or insulting to customers, and everyone at least deserves a smile and nice greeting. After all, if they didn't come, I wouldn't have a job, and most people will respond to a small grin or 'Hi" positively. But small talk just seems so strange, a dance of fakery that everyone knows the steps to but doesn't know why they're swaying to the rhythm. This is further complicated by what I call "super-friendly suspiciousness."

An example: someone comes to the checkout, items are scanned, the total price is given, and they decide to pay with a credit card. I ask for ID, they give it to me, and it's expired. Or it's their parents' card that they've borrowed. I explain they I can't accept it, and the customer shoots back with a line like Well it's still me. What's the problem? At the point, it becomes a psychological game, one where I, the employee am basically saying I don't trust you. But I can't come out and say I don't trust you because I could get fired for accusing you of anything. Even though I'm basically insinuating that you could be trying to steal shit from right under my nose with an expired ID or a card that belongs to someone else.

On their end, the customer knows what I'm insinuating, but can't commence with raised voices, finger pointing, snaps and/or neck rolls, or cold stares because he's just doing his job, and if I start showing my ass, I going to look like a raging lunatic. Of course some folks live to show their ass and will put on a show anyway, but you get the point. Essentially, your job is to treat what are often total strangers with great kindness, until they give you cause for suspicion. Then they become potential threats with ulterior motives.

So what are you thoughts? Is small talk and customer service in general simply social norms or does it encourage fakery and false cheerfulness and kindness on a mass scale? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

P.S. I know this post is a little rambling, but it's about one in the morning so cut me some slack lol!


Michael Rivers said…
Working with the public is a real eye opener. I did it for a few years too and it's amazing the stories I can now tell.