Did you just hear the snide comment that shopper made to the cashier? Did you notice the man angrily checking his watch while standing in line? Did you hear the kid in the shopping cart screaming? Yes, the final countdown to Christmas has begun! Shops, post offices and restaurants are increasingly busy with anxiety-filled customers. This means that lines are longer; gifts in the perfect size, shape and color are picked over and more elusive to find, and open parking spaces are found farther and farther from the door. Yet, as your stress level climbs and the temptation to shout at the person working the cash register grows, please pause long enough to consider that the person behind the counter is somebody’s son or daughter — possibly mine.
My three oldest children all have part-time jobs to help save for college and for personal spending money. Two of them work in retail shops, while one works as a cashier at a national bread bakery/cafe. All of them come home with stories that make us laugh, make us wonder and make us better understand how unique people can be.
Just last week, for example, my daughter (the one who works at the bakery/cafe), told us about a question she was asked by a customer. “Um, yes,” began the hungry patroness, “can you tell me if your chicken, ham and Swiss sandwich is vegetarian?” My daughter paused long enough to make certain she had heard the woman correctly before answering as politely as possible: “No, that sandwich is not vegetarian. The chicken, ham and Swiss sandwich contains meat.” Seriously, the things people say can be hilarious, bewildering and surprising.
Unfortunately, people can also say some pretty nasty things. My 16-year-old daughter, who has been working her retail job just more than a month, learned this lesson the hard way last weekend. She worked an eight-hour shift and came home in tears while recounting the harsh words, anger and frustration that shoppers were all too eager to share with her. The truth is, as a part-time cashier at the retail empire, she can do very little to solve the grievances of the customers. Hour after hour she tried patiently, and with a smile upon her face, to endure the harsh treatment of the impatient people who angrily marched through her checkout line. By the time she got home, she was exhausted, overwhelmed with her own to-do list (which included research papers, studying for exams and preparing a presentation), and perplexed that adults can’t handle their emotions better.
My son, who is now in college, was just 14 when he took his first part-time job as a Little League Baseball umpire. Either my husband or I attended every game for which he umpired, because we were concerned about the verbal abuse he might endure. Coaches and parents can get pretty upset over a call with which they disagree, even if the call comes during a game among 7-year-old children.
This experience changed me. I hate to admit this, but I used to be that way. I used to get frustrated with umpire and referee calls I disagreed with — until my son was the one making the calls. In previous years, I had also gotten angry at cashiers — until my daughter stepped behind the register. Now, I try to rein in my emotions, and I encourage others to do the same.
The employees we encounter at shops, ballgames, restaurants and post offices are just trying to do their jobs. They, too, have stresses in their lives — yet they are expected to handle our erupting emotions with patience and cheer. It doesn’t matter if our children are pulling items off the shelves faster than anyone can restock them, or if we are complaining about pricing while the line of customers snakes its way throughout the store, or if our baby hollers or if we ask stupid questions. Regardless of this chaos, the employees are expected to respond with patience, professionalism and a smile. Maybe we should do the same.
Yes, we are all more stressed than usual this time of year. Health issues, work demands, budget struggles, relationship tensions and tight time constraints can make the holidays a time of anxiety rather than cheer. However, before you lose your temper at the cashier, the waitress, the umpire, the sales clerk or the kid bringing in the shopping carts from the parking lot, please pause to consider that this worker is somebody’s son or daughter, someone’s grandma or grandpa, someone’s mother or father — and that they could use a smile more than a curse. By reining in our emotions and practicing patience, we will be extending to those employees a priceless holiday gift. During these final days before Christmas, let’s give it a try!
Pamela Patnode, of Maple Grove, is an author, speaker and home educator.