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Treating Service Workers with Dignity

One of my favourite and longest jobs was at the old green mermaid, located in a busy office tower in downtown Calgary. The shifts were early (I am an early riser, so, no trouble there), the store was busy, and the clientele were largely regulars. As a social extrovert, it was a perfect part-time job for me while I was in university.

A side effect of this particular role was seeing people around the city and recognizing them by their drink. Tall drip (ha!). Triple Venti Latte. Grande Nonfat Hazelnut Steamed Milk, aka “Tough Guy Special” (TGS on the cup). I would see them at a Flames game, or out for dinner, in the lobby of The Christmas Carol or at the park by the river; I saw those drinks walking around everywhere!

I remember about a year into that job, looking across the room at my church and seeing a man whom I recognized. Tall dark. Sometimes a bran muffin. He wasn’t chatty, but without fail, he had come in every day for that coffee.

A few weeks later, on a Sunday morning, I was in the lobby at a booth chatting about volunteering when up walks Tall Dark. I start chatting him up with the familiarity of old acquaintances, until I realized that he was looking back at me as if he had NEVER SEEN ME IN HIS LIFE!

I tell this story because in our shopping culture, and especially at this time of year, it is easy to forget about the humanity of the people behind the cash register.

Whether Tall Dark had a stressful job, or was super shy, or simply imperceptive, I have no idea. But, he interacted with me several times a week, without ever seeing me.

We’re busy, I get it. And if you are out & about this week, you’re probably starting to feel the crunch of 10 more sleeps, incoming family, events to host, wrapping to do… the list goes on.

But the quick exchanges we have at the mall or the grocery store are still engagements with another human being – it’s a detail we simply can’t forget.

How, then, do we treat all people with dignity, even when we’re short on time and patience?
  1. Talking is a necessity. Conversation is not. Though often impractical in crowded marketplaces (ie. everywhere you go this week), chat a little with the person helping you. Questions like, “Has it been busy today?” “Are you ready for Christmas?” or “Do you have many hours left to work?” may seem trite, but they open the door for empathy and shared human experience.
  2. Say Thank You and Have a Good Day… and mean it. These words spill out of our mouths with ease! Let them not be empty of the gratitude & well wishing behind them.
  3. The most basic, impactful, and wholly low-cost effort? Eye contact. Making eye contact shows that you see the other person is there, in their humanity, not just their function. 

(With apologies to those who do not immediately recognize this reference!)

My eyes usually dart around between my wallet and the pinpad and the register screen and the décor… anything to distract me from my perceived awkwardness of, you know, looking at another person standing in front of me. But, I know from my own experience selling this year, that a look into my eyes, even from someone totally disinterested, makes all the difference in dignity.

If we can't manage eye contact, it's time to go home, take some rest, and get back in the game tomorrow.

Have a great week! I mean it...

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