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Retail Talk Therapy

Retail Talk Therapy, as an idea, started when I realized how many of my customers were telling me extremely personal things about themselves.  Why were they doing this?  Is this normal?

Why have people completely opened up to me when I ask them how their day is going – or simply, “How are you?”  How on earth did we get from “hello”, to your childhood and how your father never really loved you?  How does that happen?  And in the span of 3 minutes?    I’ve been told about marital problems and health problems and my husband cheated on me with my best friend, so I burned the house down and that’ll teach him.  O….okay.

I wondered for a while if it was simply the anonymity of retail.  Do retail employees, or service personnel in general, take on a faceless kind of quality that makes it easier to confide in us?  It can seem, in the service industry, that the employees are not so much individuals, as extensions of the business.   And it works both ways – I can be ringing up customers and never really take a good look at them.  People I know have come through my line and I didn’t realize it until we were almost done with the transaction.  But I see so many people in a day and, as customers, it’s the same thing with the numbers of service people we interact with in a day.  So, does that anonymity make it easier to be honest and raw?  Does the fact that you will probably never see this person again give you the emotional freedom and security to divulge – truly unburden yourself – of amazingly personal stuff?

Maybe that helps, but I think that, ultimately, people need interaction.  They need to talk about their problems – they need therapy.  And sometimes we retail employees get used for therapy.  When I’m training new people, I’ll tell them that, to expect that.  I’ll also tell them that if a customer treats you poorly, don’t take it personally; it’s often just because they’re having a bad day…or worse.  You really don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives.  Being nice to that person can give them the little lift they need, it can truly make a difference to them.  And I do think that people need personal connections, and maybe that’s part of it too.  A lot of times they just want to be reassured.  I don’t know why they think I’m the one to do that…except for the fact that I try to do that.

I even find myself seeking Retail Talk Therapy.  I’m not, in general, overly needy.  But there are plenty of times in my life when I do feel the need to unburden.  Suddenly I find myself over-sharing with a sales clerk or cashier.  Why do I do that?  It seems to me that there is a kind of false intimacy between customer and clerk.  It’s just good customer service to be friendly, to smile, to make small talk – to interact.  But when a customer finds themselves needing those things – needing a little personal interaction, needing a friendly face, needing…  The next thing you know, I’m telling the cashier how stressed I am right now.  Or about how my back has been acting up again.  And it’s sometimes good; it can be about the kids or my dog or something funny that happened yesterday at work.  But it’s about needing to share, or commiserate, or be consoled, or just be heard.

The lesson for all of us is how much of an impact you can have on another person’s life, good or bad, even in a momentary contact with them.  There are things that stick with you forever, even if you don’t remember why you feel that way, or react certain ways to certain stimuli.  We really should be aware of the effect we can have over one another, both positively and negatively.  Even in the brief encounters, like brushing up against someone and smiling at them and saying excuse me, or turning to them and scowling…

You can say what you want about being responsible for your own feelings.  That may be theoretically true, but I don’t know anyone who is able to live that way every day.  We have power over one another.  We have the power to make people feel great and the power to ruin their day.  And “with great power comes great responsibility.”  But you knew that.

♦ ♦ ♦

Retail Talk Therapy works both ways.  The customer is seeking something from me, even if it is only a kind ear.  But sometimes I think I have gained the most from the interaction.

Here is an example of an interaction I can’t forget:

There are people you don’t forget.  One woman I still think about was a customer who really annoyed me.  She always came in during the late evening hours, with her two rowdy kids (who should have been in bed), after we had already straightened the store.  She walked around and around, disruptive kids in tow, touching everything, etc., etc.  You get the picture.  We were never happy to see her.  We were especially never happy to see her loud, messy kids.  She did make purchases, but it was always an ordeal – back and forth with the kids, her always fighting but always giving in.  It was an ordeal just to witness it.

One night, as I was ringing her up, she started talking about how her husband suddenly died of a heart attack a few months ago.  He did everything – breadwinner, disciplinarian, took care of the house, the cars, the bills.  Everything.  Basically, this woman was lost.

As we’re talking, she asks me what she should do, how she should handle this situation – her life. She admits she’s spoiling the children, there’s little discipline, she buys things for them every trip to every store.  She says that she does this every place they go.  Why?  She doesn’t want to be like this, but she doesn’t know how not to.  Because she doesn’t know what else to do, how to be both parents, how to make up to them this great loss, to fill this gaping hole she clearly feels in her life and theirs.  I feel for her, but I can’t empathize.  I can imagine what I might do, how I would behave.  But not what I would do, because I’ve never been remotely close to that situation, that magnitude of loss.

It’s like I said, you never know what is going on in someone’s life.  I felt pretty bad about how I had made mental judgments against her, and here she was just trying to keep her head above water.  But things made sense after that.  I was better able to understand the children’s behavior, her behavior.  My perspective had changed, and I was kinder to her in my mind, in my opinions.  It just goes to show you that you can be aware of something, you can train other people on it, but living it day-to-day is another matter.  I had never been rude to her or mean to her, but I had not considered that there was more to the situation than an annoying woman and her rowdy kids.

I still make snap judgments sometimes – I’m human, I’m gonna do that.  But I try to be better, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.  I try.

♦ ♦ ♦

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