Smile, dammit!

This morning, like most mornings, I stopped by the snack bar near our building to buy an Ice Break (or, as I like to call it, wake-up juice). The owner stood, as she often does, in an area near the back of the shop. I grabbed my coffee from the fridge, walked to the counter, and waited for her to serve me.

She looked up, saw me standing there, and went back to whatever she was doing.

About a minute later she walked to the register. I smiled, did my usual “Hi, how are you?” greeting and showed her what I was buying.

She didn’t speak. She didn’t smile. She didn’t even make eye contact. Instead she looked away and thrust out her hand for the money.

I dropped a couple of coins in her hand (she didn’t even tell me how much it cost, so I had to guess how much it might be). She looked at what I’d given her, grabbed some change from the register, dropped it in my hand (again without looking at me), and returned to the back of the shop.

I was stunned. Here I was being my usual cheery self, and she wouldn’t even look at me.

And I have no idea why.

Now I’ll admit I’ve never worked behind a counter myself (except to help out friends of mine when they were a bit short-staffed). But from I’ve seen, and what people have told me, it’s a pretty thankless job. The hours are long, the customers are rude, and the pay is usually nothing to write home about. So I always say hello, and even have a chat when I can, to try and brighten their day. (I once chatted to a woman from QANTAS on the phone for 45 minutes before we got around to booking my ticket.)

I wasn’t expecting the woman at the snack bar to welcome me with open arms. (She’s never been much of a talker.) But it would have been nice if she at least made eye contact and smiled.

It may not seem like a big deal, but that little episode put me in a really bad mood, which only got worse as the day progressed. (I’m sure anyone who follows me on Twitter will agree.)

I think I’ll be avoiding both her and her snack bar for a while. Sure it will take me a bit longer to get to work, but hopefully I’ll be in a better mood when I get there. (Prediction for tomorrow’s blog: “Why is everything so damned expensive at service stations?”)

So if we happen to meet in a snack bar, a shopping mall, or even just walking down the street, please give me a smile. It will really make my day.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • David Jackmanson February 11, 2010, 6:06 am

    I don’t think we have any right to expect smiles or cheeriness from people who serve at counters. They’re the ones working in a job dealing with (as you say) often rude, entitled customers, and if it’s too hard one day for them to put on a cheery front, we should just deal with it.

    It’s not counter staff’s job to make up feel good. It’s our own job to adjust our own feelings, unless we’re actually being abused.

    • Bill Harper February 14, 2010, 4:08 pm

      Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t have expected her to be cheery, or even to smile (though I hope it doesn’t last long because it will affect her business).

      But to barely acknowledge my existence? To me that’s just flat-out wrong.

      And it has nothing to do with “doing business”. It’s called “being human”.

  • Susan @ Reading Upside Down February 11, 2010, 10:14 am

    I used to work in a customer service industry. Acknowledging customers with eye contact and a polite smile is to me part of the job – it is a service industry after all. The way I performed my job was not dependent on the way the customers treated me. I was being paid to serve them, not the other way around.

    Generally speaking, customers are at least polite and often friendly if acknowledged and dealt with well. As your post indicates, repeat business is often affected by poor service. I always remember businesses where I am dealt with courteously and will both return to that business in the future and recommend it to others.

    • Bill Harper February 14, 2010, 4:16 pm

      I worked on an IT help desk for years (still do from time to time), which is right down there with fast food places in terms of irate customers. (“I ordered my burger ten seconds ago. Where the hell is it?”)

      I always made a point of sounding cheery, and in most cases it brought the hostility level right down. I think it helps that I’m naturally like that, but I still think it’s damned important.

  • Wendy February 11, 2010, 11:14 am

    Maybe she ran over her dog on the way to work but her boss wouldn’t let her take the day off. Maybe she tried to leave an abusive relationship last night and failed. Maybe she’s just received a letter telling her she didn’t make the cut to get into a mature-age entry university course, making her feel like she’ll be stuck in that dull job forever.

    Everyone has their bad days, weeks… worse. I am always kind to staff who have to deal with the public, and I am energised by interactions when they are positive. When they are negative, I let the experience go. I have seen the smallest piece of their world and I know that I’m not a part of what is going on for them right now. You can only hope that they find something to smile about soon.

    • Bill Harper February 14, 2010, 4:21 pm

      I understand that you’re saying, Wendy. I’ve had some pretty low days myself, and it became a real struggle to look people in the eye. (One of the joys of working in the IT department is there are often restricted areas that only you have access to. Great for having a “time out” when you need it.)

      But no matter how I was, I always made a point of interacting with the people who came to me for help. I may not have always chatted to them, or even smiled, but I always made them feel like they were being heard.

      And that’s probably what got to me the most during this little incident. She didn’t even look at me.

  • Jen February 11, 2010, 9:09 pm

    I do agree, a smile can make a world of difference… but some days it’s incredibly hard.

    It’s not just in shops, it’s people in general. Today as I made my way back to the office after lunch I passed a man. You pass someone, you smile at them, whether you know them or not. It’s some kind of rule. (Unless your head is down while you rummage in your bag and there’s no possibility for eye contact..) But this man just glared. He was glaring at something in the distance as we approached each other and when he noticed me smiling at him he glared even harder at me. My thought? “Mean bastard.” Not fair of me, granted, but it was what I thought.

    I’ve been told that many buses around Perth are now sporting “smile” signs. I haven’t seen them yet. Part of me thinks this is a great idea. Part of me thinks it’s very sad we have to be told.

    • Wendy February 11, 2010, 9:24 pm

      @Jen Hmm, if those smile signs make people friendlier to bus drivers, I’m totally behind it! Those guys cop some terrible abuse. Although I’m sure working at a bottle shop or a petrol station late at night would also rank up there with the worst customer experiences. I’m always extra-nice to those guys because of that.

      I do the smile-in-a-friendly-way thing when I walk past people… I am told this is why I end up being spoken to by so many crazies 😛 Although I think every crazy person who’s every harassed me has started before I got the chance! From what you’ve said in the past it sounds like the same thing happens to you.

      • Bill Harper February 14, 2010, 4:40 pm

        The worst human behaviour I’ve ever witnessed (in terms of being polite and courteous) was on our last cruise.

        The staff were nothing short of phenomenal. But so many passengers felt it was their right to treat the staff like crap. They were rude, belittling, and bordering on racist. I actually left the table a couple of times because I couldn’t stand how they were behaving.

        There’s a busker near Central Station in Brisbane. (At least he was there a few years ago. Should stop by one day to find out.) In the lid of his guitar case is a piece of paper in the shape of a love heart with these words written inside: “The way to be happy is to make others happy”.

        I couldn’t agree more.

    • Bill Harper February 14, 2010, 4:34 pm

      I can remember my father and I walking around in Melbourne’s CBD one time. He bumped into a woman walking the other way, and immediately spun around and apologised. She turned her head to see him, and she looked petrified, like he was about to attack her. It’s as if being polite just wasn’t something you did down there.

      Sorry to hear about “The Glaring Man”. Maybe it would have actually been better if he’d ignored you as well. But I think I’d prefer any interaction to just being ignored. I find it incredibly belittling.

      And yes, it’s sad that there has to be a campaign to get people to smile. Sounds like they need to look at the cause, not the symptom.

  • Karri Flatla February 12, 2010, 9:50 am

    I cannot stand society’s now-vogue habitual disregard for one another. WHAT THE HELL IS THAT? Like when you’re standing with someone on an elevator and they can’t stand to look you in the eye.

    If this is indicative of “bad days” being had by people then OMG the planet is having a bad millennium.

    Time we shake it off ya think?

    PS: I’ve worked in all kinds of customer-facing jobs and even on my REALLY bad days I still treated my fellow human with regard.

    • Bill Harper February 20, 2010, 9:43 pm

      Couldn’t agree more, Karri. Okay, so you might not feel like talking to someone. But c’mon, how hard is it to look at them and smile?

      I’ve had some pretty bad days myself, and like you I’ve always treated them with regard. Sometimes I’ve admitted I was having a bad day (“Don’t mind me. I’m just having a shocker today.”) And you know what? More often than not they either cut me some slack, or actually got me smiling again.

      It’s all about being human.

  • dave March 1, 2010, 9:39 am

    Bill, the point you are missing is that she doesn’t OWE you that smile but you are acting like she does.

    You seem to be soft-shoeing towards the moral high ground and if that is the case, please remember to ascend that peak you need to work on the principle of positivity freely given, not some kind of social quid pro quo.

    You also might want to evaluate why your day was so impacted by a minimal behaviour change in a service staff member you do not have close personal ties with.

    To sum up, here are some positive life tips that will prevent your day being impacted so negatively you need to publicise it:

    1) Be nice and don’t require others to return the favour
    2) Don’t be so judgmental of others, especially when lacking full information as to their motivations
    3) Don’t make significant emotional investments in people you don’t know and who are being paid to serve you


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