June 2005

Just a reminder

By David Feela

When a spouse has a birthday, it’s customary to purchase some sort of gift, a token of affection and remembrance, a material pleasure that means, Gee, I’m glad you were born! Forgetting about this courtesy can lead to...well, let’s just say life goes on, and as we grow older we fiddle with the change in our pockets and pretend it adds up to wisdom.

You see, I really had intended to pick up a birthday gift last week while shopping at the Farmington Mall, but I got distracted. The men’s sales rack in a department store presented an excellent price on a pair of khaki hiking shorts and then the word Reduced made the shorts almost impossible to ignore. I grabbed the last pair in my size and headed for the checkout line.

I stood in the checkout line, holding the new shorts, with a long line of customers. I could hear a few of them around me starting to grumble. The store had the resources to purchase six cashier stations but apparently only two employees. Finally I approached the lone cashier. He glanced at me, almost furtively, and then started scanning the merchandise I had placed on the counter. While I watched his computer, the message Say Hello appeared on the screen. It sounded like a good idea, so I said, “Hello.”

He gave me a curious look, attempted a smile, took my money, and almost made the correct change. As I gave the erroneous dollar back to him, I noticed that his computer displayed a new message: Say Thank You. So I did, and I headed out of the store under the scrutiny of the security camera, aware that I had probably violated an unwritten shopper’s protocol by being more cheerful than someone who had stood in line for over 10 minutes ought to have sounded.

Not until I reached the parking lot, fumbling for my keys, did it occur to me that the messages on the computer appeared as reminders for the cashier — not for me — of a customer service policy, perhaps required by the store’s management: Say “Hello” when you meet the customer, and say “Thank you” once the transaction has been completed.

I felt like a fool for missing the point so much earlier, but I also felt a pang of indignation, that a computer had to be employed to prompt the words that ought to have passed between us without the assistance of gizmos and gadgets. Clearly, my cashier had failed to perform according to company standards, but then again, how many of us perform much better?

In the weeks since my visit to the Farmington Mall, I’ve had the opportunity to say hello and thank you to literally dozens of checkout computers: the software is more common in retail businesses than I had ever previously suspected. Even at home I’ve tried to keep in practice by addressing our microwave when it beeps. It’s a good habit to cultivate: simple courtesy. After all, there may come a time when, say, your spouse will not talk to you for a few days, and just hearing your own voice can make all the difference.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School, and is now free for the summer.