Thursday, 2 August 2018

Cruel to the Kind, or Abusing the Civility of Retail Etiquette

I don't like talking about myself too much, since it seems pretty egotistical. Even if this is my blog, I want to appeal to more people than just . . . well, myself. However, something I've encountered in my life lately has started me thinking about mental health, power and control. See, very recently, I got a job. Two, in fact, one in retail and another in hospitality. Now, my bosses at both of these places are fantastic, and unusually short women, who otherwise have little in common. I think they are great bosses, especially since I have worked at a much worse venue in the past. Since I don't work there anymore, I don't really fear telling you that I once worked at "Tuppy's on the Riverside" and I quit after three weeks because my boss was verbally abusive, and I decided that I would rather leave than have a panic attack.
But, in both of these workplaces where I currently work, I enjoy the work, the employers and the staff . . . however, I have noticed an unusual trend amongst a small subset of the customers, which I find mildly offputting. Now, as these are service industries, I get an awful lot of customers who walk through the door, a fair chunk of humanity that uses these venues. They peruse and occasionally purchase and/or consume the food and beverages or wares that my workplaces supply. However a few people, probably few enough that I could count on one hand, seems to abuse the customer/provider relationship. I don't believe that they are doing this on purpose, in fact in some cases I know that they definitely are not, but it doesn't change the fact that these people are abusing staff, not by swearing or being violent or offensive, but by exploiting the enforced - and often purchased - civility of staff. The Word of the Day is: 'SERVILE'
Servile /'servuyl/ adj. 1. Weakly allowing another to have control; obsequious: Servile manners. 2. Of or relating to slaves; abject: servile obedience.
If you're not a part of the hospitality or retail industry, you may not be aware, but there is a kind of customer that tends to spend more time socializing than actually buying or even attempting to buy goods. In some workplaces, these people are colloquially known as "Counter Monkeys" (as they tend to hang around the counter), or when I spoke to my older brother who has worked in Games Workshop for many years, he called them "Time Vampires", as they tend to absorb quite a lot of your time.
Now personally I don't mind these people much, because I work in an Op Shop and a Cafe respectively, and being a friendly part of the community is part of the appeal of these places. We can't always offer a steak, or the latest brands, but we can offer something friendly and cosy unlike those bigger stores. I like a good chat as much as the next person, and I can learn a lot about the community, as well as life in general, by chatting with customers.
The problem with this is that it creates a kind of stilted relationship between customers and staff, especially if you frequent a store regularly. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my interactions with the people that come into my store, but there is an unusual imbalance, based on the fact that I am trying to sell you something.
I want my store to be appealing, I want to seem as friendly and open as possible & I want you to feel comfortable so that you will give me your money and not regret it. I don't lie to customers, but I don't give them the truth in the same way I would if I was being perfectly honest. So, when a child picks up a fragile piece of crockery or glass, I don't say "put that down, it's fragile", I say "that's expensive, my dear, please be careful", and most of the time their parent hears the word expensive, and makes them put it down. Or, when someone asks for three sugars in their coffee, I don't say "ugh, that's way to much sugar", instead I say "we can offer honey, if you like your coffee really sweet", or, if I know them well enough I just say "okay".
You see, it's not lying, it's just sugarcoated. I add a layer of nicety upon what might otherwise be a bit obtrusive. Because you're not paying to be judged or ridiculed or spoken down to, you're coming to have a need taken care of, and I am the caretaker. In fact, moreso than that, because I work in service industries, I am your server. I am serving you, and whilst I have certain powers to remove you from the store if you break an obvious rule, I am still essentially under contract to serve you, I am basically a retail/hospitality "servant".

However, one of the most insidious things that happens in my workplace is when customers, or simply "perusers", take advantage of the fact that I (and my coworkers) have to be nice. There are some people, that come into the store, and whilst they do occasionally purchase a thing or two, they spend the majority of their time - and I am talking between half an hour to two hours - chatting. And I can tell that they are coming more for the chat than the products. But, it's not just a civil conversation or a bit of local gossip, but rather the person is lonely and they don't have anyone else to talk to, so they are talking to me because I am unable to walk away.
I call it Retail Abuse.
Now, I'm not trying to be all dark and edgy saying "this is the worst thing in the retail industry". No, far from it. I know that sexual harassment, verbal abuse & drug abuse are rife in several hospitality and retail venues. Thankfully, nothing of that sort has taken place in my workplaces (at least, not that I'm aware of, and I hope it never happens). But, I use the word "abuse" because, these people are using retail for their own purposes, using it wrong. The customer-retailer relationship exists so as to facilitate sales without conflict, and with a degree of comfort, but they are using it to suit their own selfish needs.
And don't get me wrong - like I said, I enjoy a good conversation. If you live on your own and like having a chat with local businesspeople, or you are friends with the local cafe owner, you are not what I am talking about. So, if you like to be friendly with staff when you're out and about and in a good mood, please don't think that I am trying to tell you that you're doing the wrong thing by being nice. It's not chatting with staff and trying to be friendly that is the problem. It's taking advantage of the fact that I have to be nice.

Here's the key difference, and some major red flags that you're dealing with customers who are abusing your hospitality:
- They will come straight to the front counter before looking at anything in the store, or the menu.
- When they aren't speaking to you, they will stand awkwardly near the counter and glance around.
- They will always want to talk, but never about you, rather about themselves or their experiences.
- If you speak to another customer, they will attempt to interrupt, or even join the conversation.
- They will bring up personal issues, such as medical, personal or family problems, apropos of nothing.

As I hope you can tell, the problem is specifically that these people aren't treating you like a friend, but rather they are self-medicating their loneliness with these social interactions with service staff.
See, these people aren't being friendly, they don't want friends. If I was the friend of one of these people I would honestly tell them "look, I understand that you're lonely, but you're smothering me with how needy you are. There are other ways to socialize."
Or, if it was one of my best friends, I would either sit them down and have a heart to heart about their serious issues; unless they were just spending hours talking about nothing, I would simply say "Fuck off, I have shit to do. Talk later, okay?".
So, either these people don't have friends, or all of their friends have already given them the "I have shit to do" speech, and so they've ended up on the other side of my counter - or someone else's. But, since I'm not their friend, rather a paid employee of a business, I can't tell them "fuck off". Instead, I have to make small talk whilst they make idle conversation for hours at a time.

I am not trying to be unfair to these people, so I won't give you names or identifying details for the Retail Abusers I know, even though they've definitely told me plenty enough to share. But, I know for a fact that amongst them are alcoholism, acquired brain injuries, mental illness & physical disabilities.
Where I work, there is a methadone clinic, a hospital, a care home & a mental health facility all not too far away. The fact that we have so many healthcare services nearby probably explains why I know half a dozen or so of these people, but I am sure that a few other people with other undiagnosed issues must also abuse the friendliness of staff in other suburbs and in other venues.

And sure, I get that these people may not recognize that what they're doing is socially toxic, and the only thing stopping me from telling them to go is away is the fact that I am a paid employee and I am sugar-coating my conversations. And I guarantee that they don't fully understand that, by interacting with me in this customer-provider relationship, I am essentially their servant and they have a certain level of control and power in this dynamic which means that I cannot tell them how I really feel or - in some cases - how little I actually care.
Worst of all, because I am there to be hospitable, and not make people feel uncomfortable, I cannot tell these people what they really need to hear - which is that I can tell they have some underlying social or mental issue and that they need to seek professional help, rather than self-medicating their issue by chatting to strangers about nothing.

I understand all these things. But, that doesn't excuse the fact that I feel exhausted, trapped and abused when I am forced to talk to these people due to the social contract of the worker-client relationship.
That is Retail Abuse. I'm sure it happens in other industries, but retail is where I encounter it most, and retail is most often typified by the "employee stuck behind a counter, interacting with customers" dynamic. If other people like this term, but think it deserves a better name, I won't complain, but this is what I called it when I spoke to my boss about it, and she understood what I meant.

Lately, when I encounter customers like this, I do what my boss told me to do: I do my job. Not in a dismissive "stop whining and get to work" way, but rather, I price donations and sort shelves. I clean shelves or tables and I rearrange the cups and plates again. Because that way, the person can see that I am at work, I am not their friend at the store, but I am a paid employee doing a job.
And look, this isn't the worst thing in the world. It doesn't happen that often, and I still love my job. This is just one aspect that bothers me, and I do think it shouldn't happen especially for the sake of the Retail Abusers themselves - I may be a stopgap for their loneliness, but I am not a real friend, and surely someone else can help them more than I ever could. And if you find yourself the victim of Retail Abuse, I hope this has helped, and feel free to leave a comment below detailing your experiences (although I advise against naming names, for legal reasons), as you shouldn't feel like someone's amicable servant, just because you've picked a job where you are serving people.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and beyond everything I've detailed here . . . I absolutely love my jobs, and I look forward to the experiences, skills and financial support that it will bring me in the future. I also hope to complete more blog posts, as I've been gone for a few months. That needs rectifying.
So, until next time, I am going to work on a new blog post, well, now. I hope you get to see that sooner rather than later.

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