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Drew Shannon

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I was a quick learner.

“Hi, miss. How are you? Need any bags?”

A methodical routine. Grab, scan, bag. Grab, scan, bag. Ask for the points card.

“Credit, debit or cash?”

I’m 15 years old. Excited and nervous. My very first job. My very first day.

“Your total is $13.55.”

I offer a smile and an open hand, ready to provide the best service.

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The clinking of change, then coins as cold as the ice cream waiting on the conveyor belt dumped into my palm. Thirteen dollars and fifty-five cents paid in quarters, nickels and dimes.

I begin to count. I fumble with the coins. Some slip through my fingers like silk: 6.75, 7, 7.25 ... wait, was that 7.50 or 7.40?

The customer lets loose an exasperated sigh. I look up and the customer turns to her preteen daughter: “This is why school is important, so you can learn basic math and not be some useless cashier.”

Shame builds up in me, flooding my head like a torrential downpour. Feelings of being misunderstood follow. It’s only my first day! I am good at math! You don’t know anything about me!! My mouth gapes like a fish out of water. Taken aback, but with nothing to say, I wordlessly hand the receipt to the customer. She sighs with irritation and snatches it out of my hand.

That day, I soon grew to learn that this was a regular routine. I forced myself to stop caring because I knew: They don’t know anything about me – I will not let them judge me. Do not take it personally. A mantra I repeated as often as the beep of the scanner.

Since then, I have spent hours scanning groceries. I have seen thousands of different characters and personalities come into the store. As my shift would progress, the number of insults and bad attitude would grow exponentially. Some days, a thought would nag at the back of my head as I packed up and punched out at the time clock.

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How can you be so inconsiderate?

I’ve seen and heard it all: suggestive old men who want to know which Asian country I am from; my co-worker, a sweet middle-aged woman, targeted and in tears because of her hijab; and insults that mean nothing to me, but seem to fulfill the speaker in ways I struggle to understand.

When does hurting someone else make you feel better?

Sometimes, customers are polite. They ask me how much longer I have in my shift and wish the best for me. Often, once I’ve become part of their daily grocery routine, they become a lot kinder.

Why is it okay to be unkind to a stranger, but not to an acquaintance? And why do people get so hot and bothered in a grocery store? It’s just another example of senseless behaviour. But how can insulting a harmless and innocent 15 year old cashing out your milk and bread bring you any satisfaction?

Who do you think you are?

I don’t just speak for myself – I speak for all the people in customer service who put on their best smile and give their best help. In a world filled with consumerism and discount shopping, these people are treated as if they were less than a human being. Most importantly, why do some people always choose their targets to be the ones who earn minimum wage?

Don’t get me wrong – I am not complaining about my job. I do not think I am better than my customers. I want to make them happy. Nothing brightens my day more than a gushing compliment to my supervisor about my bagging skills. However, this is not just about providing good customer service and how I should improve my skills – it’s about the people who talk down to the service sector simply because they can. It’s about people who don’t have a complaint, but complain anyway.

As someone who stood behind the scanner, I can say that these comments are not appreciated. Sure, the barb loses its sting after a while, but they are unnecessary and target my character and personality more than the service I provide.

This rude behaviour extends far from the scope of the local grocery store – but to the playground, to a high school, to the workplace, to busy intersections during rush hour. Perhaps, some people prefer to make others suffer in order to hide their own frustrations. Or maybe, they want to feel superior.

Considering we live in Canada and are fortunate to have equal opportunities, this scorn and contempt for the service sector is unfair and close minded - you cannot judge someone when you do not know their story.

In the end, the person on the other side of the till who scans your groceries should be given the same respect as the person beside you at the movie theatre, or on the bus. They might be an undiscovered virtuoso who will later be worth millions of dollars, or your future doctor paying through their student loans, or an engineer who changes the world for the better. Perhaps they are immigrants who cannot find any other job. Maybe it’s your daughter, your best friend, your uncle, or your mother.

Whoever it is – it’s always a person. Just like you and just like me.

Megan Ty lives in Mississauga, Ont.

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