“How am I doing today?”

A regular patron came in recently and said “How am I today?” The clerk at the desk replied “I don’t know, how are you?” The patron then said “Works every time!”

He wanted her to ask him how he was doing. This is entirely backwards, and very needy. It is a sign of a need of external validation, at a minimum.

I heard this exchange from the back room and thought it over in case he decided to use this line on me. Luckily, he did the very next day.

When he said “How am I today?”, I replied “Only you would know that.”

This stumped him. He mumbled something about how I was supposed to ask him how he was doing. I pointed out that the normal way of doing things was for him to ask me how I am doing, and then after I answer, I would ask him how he was doing.

I told him a story of when I worked in retail. After many years of various retail jobs, I got tired one day of constantly asking people how they were doing and them not asking me. This is normal in retail. You are treated like a machine, a non-person. You are a means to an end. You aren’t really there to them.

That day I started answering for them. After I asked, and they replied, I waited a bit and when (not if) they didn’t ask me, I would say “And I’m fine too, thank you!” This confused them. Some would say “But I didn’t ask you.” I said “Yes, that’s the point.”

I explained to this patron that it is rude to not ask the other person how they are doing, and to only care about yourself. It creates an air of higher and lower.

So then, I asked him how he was doing and he said he was OK.

Pause.

Then he said “Notice I didn’t ask you how you were doing.”

Yes. I noticed. Now I know that he doesn’t do this out of ignorance, but willful neglect of basic courtesy.

This explains a lot about him. It shows how terribly broken he is. I wonder how he was raised. I wonder what would twist someone into being intentionally rude. This isn’t thoughtlessness. This is on purpose.

Now, there are certain people who get too familiar, too close. They assume they are my friends when they don’t even know my last name. Certain people insist on telling me what books I should read, not even knowing what I like to read. Some people even went so far as to insist that I had to have children when I got married, not understanding the family history that I’ve lived through.

Plenty of people are too personal at the library, but then some are too impersonal.

This is why the self-check was such a great thing. People didn’t have to come to us. They didn’t have to treat us like ATMs. If something wasn’t working right, they only had themselves to blame.

This is always an interesting job. If you are a people-watcher, it is the best job ever.

Library thoughts – book magic

People think that if you work in the library, you are a librarian. They think that librarians are intelligent and deserve respect. In many ways, they give them more respect than teachers.

They do not realize and are surprised to discover that to be a librarian you have to have a Master’s degree in library science. Just working in a library doesn’t mean you are a librarian.

Thus, they think merely working in a library is enough to indicate intelligence and command respect.

Thus, merely being around books makes you smart and respected. This seems to not apply to booksellers, though. Perhaps it is the number of nonfiction books to fiction that makes the difference. Perhaps it is because librarians help you for free, so their actions seem altruistic.

I don’t know. I’m running with it though, because it benefits me.

I spent a lot of years working retail, and honestly, the library is a lot like retail. I like it better, not just because people respect me more. I’m the same person whether I’m at Waldenbooks or the library, so it isn’t me, it is them.

I like working at the library because I can help people regardless of their ability to pay. I always felt a little guilty encouraging people to look at extra items when I worked in retail. There was always a little bit of tension there because of it. They’d sometimes say “Oh, you want me to get this so you’ll get a higher commission.” No, it is because it will benefit you. Or you need it.

Now there is no tension. They can have 100 books at a time.

In a related thought, people are now saying to me “Wow! I know a real author!” Being a writer isn’t enough. Publishing a book is what makes it real. Maybe this is part of working in the library. People respect books. Real, physical books. Just being around them, the magic rubs off on you.

How are you?

I think everybody should have to work in retail for at least a year. Then we all might learn how to be civilized.

When I worked at a fabric store I would ask customers all day long how they were doing. They would answer me and they would almost never ask me how I was doing. One day I got really frustrated and I said “And I’m fine too thanks!” I got a really strange look. The person didn’t get that they hadn’t asked me how I was doing and they didn’t get that it was rude not to do so.

The person behind the counter is not a machine. She is a human being.

Treating a human being like she is a machine is how we are falling apart. It is how we are losing our humanity. Common courtesy isn’t common anymore.

When I am interacting with a customer service representative and they ask me how I’m doing, I’ll reply and then ask them how they are doing. They will reply, and then follow it up with “…and thank you for asking.” They are surprised that someone even asked them.

It doesn’t take any extra time to ask someone how they’re doing. But when you are going to ask someone how they’re doing you need to actually wait for the answer. And you need to look them in the eye if you are in person.

Just saying it and not meaning it is pointless. You might as well not say it at all. If you say it and you don’t mean it is just a reflex action and not a real human interaction. It is important for us to remember that we are all humans working together. If we treat each other like machines, then we will become machines. We will become less than human.

It rubs me the wrong way.

I know a guy who constantly will say “How are you doing?” but he doesn’t really mean it. It is said in passing, and it is said all day long. I hate it. I hate it because it is meaningless and mindless. I hate it because it is a false way to connect. It is empty.

It rubs me the wrong way.

I had a boyfriend who would pet on my arm in a thoughtless manner. If he was distracted by something – say, the television, he would pet on my arm in a way to connect with me, but there was no connection. When he would pet on my arm in a thoughtless and mindless manner, it would actually hurt. It was scratchy. It was grating.

Like the zest coming off a lemon kind of grating.

It is right up there with people who say “How are you?” and they don’t wait for an answer. And if you answer, they don’t hear. There is a lot of that in working in customer service.

It is really bad in retail. When I worked at a fabric store, I would always ask the customer how they were doing, and sometimes they would answer. Rarely would they ask me. Once, after a long day, I started telling people how I was doing anyway. That really messed with their minds. I’d chime up “And I’m fine too, thanks!” and they’d look at me like I was crazy. I’d gotten the script wrong, as far as they could tell. They hadn’t asked me how I was doing, and I was telling them anyway. As far as I could tell, they were the ones who had gotten the script wrong. If someone asks you how you are doing, you are supposed to reply and then ask them how they are doing.

Part of it isn’t just the asking, it is actually waiting for an answer. It is looking the other person in the eyes and actually caring.

Now, maybe that is a bit intense. Maybe people don’t do that because they don’t really want to hear the answer. Maybe they don’t really care. Then they need to stop going through the motions.

If you don’t mean it, don’t do it. If you do it, do it like you mean it. Whatever it is.

I think our world has become less connected these days. Cell phones and email and instant messaging and Facebook and Twitter and texting don’t seem to be doing what they were intended to do. We can communicate faster, but not better. We are interacting with our devices and not with people. We seem to be actually retreating further into ourselves the more information that keeps coming in.

Living wage

There is a lot of debate these days about a “living wage”. People who work at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart want to make more money. This is true for all of retail and fast food.

There was a lady who said that she has worked for McDonald’s for ten years and she doesn’t make enough money to feed her children or buy them shoes. She showed up at a board meeting and confronted the president and demanded a raise. She got arrested.

Before we get upset about this and think that upper management is saying “let them eat cake” let’s stop for a moment.

When did working for a fast food restaurant become a career? I remember when I was growing up that it was something teenagers did to make a little spending money and to learn how to be a good employee. It was a first job. It wasn’t meant to be a full time for the rest of your life thing. As a manager, that would be different. But as a front line clerk or a cook, no. It is supposed to be a job that you have for summer, or a year at most, and then you move on.

And if McDonald’s or Wal-Mart employees start making $12 an hour at a job that requires nothing more than a high school diploma and very little skill, then does that mean that everybody else is going to get a raise too? Then everything will just cost more, and we will be right back where we were. People talk about how cheap cars were back twenty years ago. But so was everything else. And we all made less. It is all the same ratio of money in to money out.

Raising the minimum wage won’t fix anything. Let’s raise our expectations. Let’s figure out a way to help people determine what they are good at early on and encourage them to seek training in that. Vocational education is a good thing. Not everybody has to be a doctor. The world needs plumbers and electricians and auto mechanics. The world needs teachers and physical therapists. The world needs people who know how to do something well, and that something needs to be something that they enjoy. Let’s not encourage people to stay in a dead-end job by giving them more money. Let’s encourage them to set their sights higher.

“Ma’am!”

I was shopping at Hobby Lobby a few years back. There was this weird area that was kind of behind a counter. It kind of looked like the area was just for staff, but all the paint brushes were there. There isn’t anything so special about paint brushes that they need to be controlled. I don’t think there are lots of shoplifters who go for paint brushes. So perhaps the area wasn’t off-limits after all. I asked permission to go behind the counter and the clerk told me that was fine. He kind of looked at me funny, wondering why I asked.

I was in an area that looked like it was for staff – but I didn’t look like I was staff. I had my purse slung across me. I had a shopping basket next to me. And most importantly, I didn’t have on the vest that every Hobby Lobby employee wears.

In a short amount of time lady stood behind the counter that was behind me and said loudly “Ma’am!” I knew what she was trying to do. She thought I worked there. She was trying to get my attention. I ignored her, hoping she’d notice the purse, the basket, and the lack of vest. I had nothing that indicated I worked there. Nope. I was wrong. Louder she called. “Ma’am!”

Not “Excuse me.” not “Do you work here?” nor even “Can you help me?” She barked at me, like I was her servant. Her voice was shrill and sharp.

I got up, slowly turned around, and faced this bleach-blonde twenty something standing with her mother, and said simply “I don’t work here.”

Oh, she said, and walked away.

I wanted to speak on behalf of all retail employees everywhere. We are not your bitches. Don’t yell at us. Don’t treat us like dogs. We are people. We are here to serve you, but we aren’t your servants. You don’t have a right to yell at us.

But I didn’t. I’ve been trained well, to keep my opinion to myself. Lots of retail does that. Having a psychopathic, narcissistic manager will do that.

It is very stressful working retail. Somehow people assume that if you are working behind a counter it means you are beneath them. They treat you like you are stupid. Maybe they get a rise out of putting you down.

The library is a lot like retail, but it is nicer. People assume that you have a degree to work there. To do what I do, no. A high school diploma is the minimum requirement. But I am happy to have people treat me better, usually. There is still some retail “she’s behind the counter so she must be beneath me” attitude going on, sometimes.

I remember a time at the end of a transaction I said “thank you”. The guy got really angry and said “You are supposed to say ‘have a nice day'”

No. I’m not. There isn’t a script. If there was, he’d understand that it was time for him to exit stage right.

I don’t say have a nice day because it is trite. I don’t like it when people tell me that. I said “thank you” and it doesn’t even make sense for me to do that. I helped him. The library doesn’t make any money from people, so it isn’t like we need to say thanks. I said thanks to be polite. But he jumped on me.

Weird. If people want good service, they need to not be mean. I expect that in his mind, he gets shoddy service everywhere he goes. You get what you give.

Showing up late.

Don’t show up at a store minutes before they close. They have been open for hours, waiting for you. Your money isn’t worth waiting another ten minutes. If they stay open another ten minutes for you, then what if another person comes during that time? Then that is another ten minutes.

They want to go home. They have their own lives to tend to. They have children to pick up from babysitters or daycare. They have groceries that need to be bought and dinner that needs to be cooked.

I’m grateful that I now work in a place where when close at 8, it means 8. I’ve worked a lot of retail and a lot of late nights because of it. There is no staying late at the library. Well, there is staying late if you are the person in charge and somebody has neglected to pick up their children. Then you have to wait for the parent to come. If the parent takes longer than 30 minutes, then the police are called and the child goes with them. That is thoughtless of the parent. Thoughtless is another word for rude.

It is rude to show up at a shop at the last minute. It is assuming that your needs are more important than their needs. Sure, this may be a small business and it relies on your money to survive. But they shouldn’t be made to feel like they are groveling for your money. If you really wanted to help them out, show up when they are open. To show up at the last minute and not be through when the closing time is to insist that you are more important than they are.

You aren’t.

Now, they aren’t more important than you either. There has to be a balance. This has to be an equal relationship. It is as if you are dating a guy and he insists that you go to horror films and you hate horror films. But you are desperate to date him, so you keep going out with him to these films. So you keep feeling bad, and he keeps feeling good. A relationship is healthy only when both people are happy. To insist that they stay late for you, especially when they aren’t going to make a lot of money on the transaction, is only going to make you happy. It is going to make them miserable.

The customer isn’t always right.

I agree with businesses that close on time and kick people out. They have to draw the line somewhere. If they tick off a customer doing that, fine. A customer that does not respect the employee’s time isn’t the kind of customer that is desired.

Worse is the restaurant business. If the place says it closes at 9, that just means that they take the last people in at 9. They could then place their order and lounge around until 11. It is very common that they will not tip to make up the difference. You may think that the waitress and chefs are being paid for that time. They aren’t being paid much – and they too have places they want to go. They too have families they would like to see. They have a life outside of work, and they would like to get to it. If a restaurant closes at 9, be courteous and be done by 9. Don’t just get started then. They will resent you.

I have worked retail for many years of my life and I have repeatedly had nightmares with people coming in late, saying “But I just…” In these nightmares, the people won’t leave. We are trying to close the doors and more keep coming in. Then more people come in after them. Then we are stuck there for an hour or more. The bad part is that the nightmare isn’t far from reality.

Trust me, your money isn’t worth that. If you can’t be bothered to shop during regular hours, they don’t need your business. Businesses should not have to beg for your business. Part of being a good customer is respecting their time.

Nametag

I wear a nametag at work. I guess it is better than wearing a uniform. It identifies me as an employee, as someone helpful.

But I hate wearing it. I’m all for people knowing I work there. I’m for people asking me questions. I also stand behind my actions so I don’t care if someone feels the need to call downtown to the Main library and complain that I wouldn’t let them do something which is against policy or illegal.

But I do mind the over familiarity this encourages. I don’t like strangers calling me by name. That seems like a huge boundary violation to me. This may not be a problem for other people, but it is a problem for me. Perhaps it has to do with how I was raised, where my space, my thoughts, and my body weren’t mine. I was stolen from in many ways as a child. It has taken me many years to come to terms with the amount of damage that was done to me, intentionally or not.

Or perhaps I’m not alone in feeling creeped out when someone I don’t know acts like he knows me.

I’m glad that my legal name is Elizabeth, but I go by Betsy. So there is a layer of distance there. It isn’t an easily guessable nickname either. It is a way of differentiating. When a stranger says “Hey, Elizabeth” I know they aren’t real. I know they only have my name from my nametag.

They think they are being personable, but they are actually being the exact opposite. They didn’t get my name from a person (me), they got it from a piece of plastic.

It is important to call people what they want to be called, if you want to be personable. I knew a guy named Michael who would get really violent if someone called him Mike, or Mikey. It was too intimate, too casual, too familiar for him to handle. He once told a story about slamming a guy’s head into a table for calling him Mike, after being told not to.

That is a bit extreme. He has anger management issues. But hopefully you get the idea. Names matter.

We don’t have a naming practice in the average American culture in that you get to pick your own name. It isn’t really yours, so much as something that was assigned to you. But it is yours, in that it differentiates you from everybody else in your family.

Sometimes people will call me by another variant of Elizabeth – I’ll get Liz, or Lizzy. I think this is a terrible nickname. I hate how it sounds. And also – it isn’t my name. Why would I respond to it? You might as well call me Donna. Once again, people are trying to be familiar and they haven’t been given that permission.

The bad part about my job is that I am expected to be friendly with everyone. That in and of itself isn’t bad – it is where that goes. I think people are interesting, and I like being friendly with people. I don’t like it when they assume that my being friendly with them means that I am their friend.

Because I’m not. I’m not their friend. Sometimes I am, and sometimes I enjoy it when they come in. I enjoy talking to them. Those are the people who get “Betsy” as the name to use.

So, be mindful when you use the name of someone who works at a store. When you use their name because you’ve gotten it from their nametag, you aren’t being friendly. Oftentimes, you are at an advantage. Often, they don’t have your name. It isn’t friendly – it is a power play.

Here, I use Betsy, because I’m being very personal here. I’m sharing myself. I’m trying to be as real and as open as possible. And, well, it goes well with Beadhead, which has been my nickname for over half my life. So, in a way, I have named myself, and I have given you permission to use my “real” name.

Writing a blog is very public and very private at the same time.