When we have to wait….

Most all of us spend time waiting in lines – including those of us who work for a living serving  customers who wait in line to get to us.  When we are waiting in line, we may get restless, frustrated or irritated – or we have the option to use that time otherwise.

  • If we notice that we have gotten to any extent upset from waiting, we can have compassion for ourselves – forgive and bless ourselves in this hurting state.
  • We can welcome the waiting as a mindfulness bell. bringing us back to this present moment.  A fortyish guy who came through my line the other day said, “I kind of like waiting – it gives me a chance to slow down.”
  • We can bless our purchases.  This may be easier if we are buying something as positive as good food.
    • We can pay attention to the feel of each item as we put it out on the conveyor belt.
    • We can feast on the colors, sizes and shapes of the items.
    • We can arrange them on the belt in some way that is fun or satisfying for us.
    • We can picture these products giving us health.
    • We can be grateful for having the money to buy them.

      We can use our time waiting to play with our food, like this customer did.

      We can use our time waiting to play with our food, like this customer did.

  • Whether or not we have a cashier who is liable to ask us “What’s been a highlight of your day?”, we can rehearse our answer to that question.  We can say it to our cashier even if they don’t ask.  We can ask them what’s been a highlight of their day.  If they have been under pressure with a long line, they may especially profit from such an injection of positive energy.
  • We can chat with the people in front of or behind us.
  • We can bless the cashier as we are waiting to get to them.
    • May they not be stressed.
    • May they be efficient and accurate.
  • This blessing of the cashier can be especially powerful when we get in front of them.  We can be a little bomb of positive energy.  Our smile and our words can be an invitation to the cashier to come out into the light.


When we don’t have access to any of these strategies – when it seems that the best we can do is to get frustrated and irritated – we can return to forgiving and blessing ourselves.

When they have to wait….

This post is written especially for cashiers and any front-line customer service people who serve people who are waiting in line, but may be interesting to all of us who wait in those lines.  The two posts after this are especially for the people who do the waiting.

There is an old customer service saw that you need to handle people in the line one at a time, when they are in front of you.  This is true as far as it goes – it is grounding and comforting to focus your primary attention on that person – but you do need to also invest some attention in the people farther down the line.  The manager of my store reinforced at a meeting recently that you need to greet other people in the line, so they know you are conscious of them waiting their turn and get the feeling that you are working hard to get to them.  He says “People don’t mind waiting, but they hate to be ignored.”  I don’t know that it’s always true that they don’t mind waiting, but they definitely hate to be ignored.

Our customers are not this well-dressed - and usually they are much more patient, but not always.

Our customers are not this well-dressed – and usually they are much more patient, but not always.

I don’t always greet people all the way down  the line, but I try especially – as I start waiting on one person – to greet the person who has just stepped up to the next in line.  Sometimes when I don’t get to them until the middle of serving this first person, it seems that I have missed my window – that they have gotten antsy or irritated.  Sometimes it works to include them in whatever conversation I am having with the person who is in front of me.

Sometimes, if that person or someone further down the line seems to be simmering from waiting, it’s necessary to ratchet down the conversation with this current customer.  “Jesus is coming – look busy.”  Even if acting industrious doesn’t appreciably speed up your process, at least it doesn’t throw stones in your neighbor’s path –  doesn’t unnecessarily aggravate that person’s upset.  You can take this situation as a mindfulness bell – an opportunity to ground yourself and focus on the concrete task of swiping groceries.  Plant your feet on the ground, focus on your breathing and just be.

To whatever extent it seems like someone down the line or right in front of you might be upset with you over waiting, it’s important to not take it personal – actually to affirm yourself as a good cashier and a good, likable person.

When the person who just moved in front of you has been waiting a while, it may feel right to apologize that they had to wait – especially if you get the sense that they have been upset by waiting.  You might take a stab at engaging them in conversation – and sometimes that will win them over or you may realize that you have been reading their body language wrong, that they have not been upset at all.  But sometimes this attempt to engage them may just aggravate their irritation, so you will let it go – or you will immediately have the intuition to not attempt to go there.

These people may seem unreasonable or unlikable.  It’s really useful to remind yourself that you have no idea why they are in such a hurry.  Maybe they have kids waiting in the car.  Maybe they have a sick person at home that they are trying to back to.  In one way or another they are in pain, or they wouldn’t behave in an unfriendly fashion.  A Course in Miracles says that people are always either offering love or asking for love.  Get it that this person is needing love.  See if you can respond to them with compassion.  This can help you feel even better about yourself as a person and a cashier.

“This person is giving me an opportunity to be my best self.  I am a competent cashier and a good person.  I wish only good for myself and for them.”

Loving the hostile old man in me

My therapist Lorrie is reading and loving this blog.  This is flattering, affirming and encouraging.  One way this is a mixed blessing is that when she sees in my writing an area where I’m stuck, she feels empowered to offer me the chance to get unstuck.

A week ago, December 21, in a post entitled “Customers who piss you off” (the search box in the right hand column will take you right there), I described a customer: “About 60 – tall and wiry – he presented very defended – strong male body armor, cold, hostile.  I immediately took a dislike to him.  I didn’t want him in front of me.”  At my therapy session two days after this post went up, Lorrie asked, “What was it about him that made you not want him in front of you?”

What made it so hard for me to respond to this guy with compassion?

What made it so hard for me to respond to this guy with compassion?

I knew immediately that I had been found out.  What made me reject him?  Well the part of me that is like him.  Some would call this the shadow.  I like my persona – what I lead with, what I identify with.  My persona is soft, undefended, warm, embracing.  It’s how a lot of people would describe me.  But it’s not all there is to me.  I have a part of me that is very defended, cold and hostile.  I hate it when I go there.  I hate me when I go there.  I have it in me to get mad when I think I’m being charged the wrong price.  I don’t go there very often, but I could go there.

So I got mad at this guy because he reminded me of me – a part of myself that I reject.  This is probably true most of the time that a customer (or anyone) pisses us off.  And the rest of the time they probably are reminding us of someone from our past who hurt us or who for some other reason we still resent.  This makes these people real gifts to us – they expose what in us still needs healing, still needs loving.

If we seem these people as gifts, we may see that they are clearly in pain – or they would not be behaving in unfriendly ways or radiating toxic energy.  If we see them as gifts and in pain, we may find it in our hearts to have compassion for them.  And the big payoff of having compassion for them is that it will open up the possibility of having compassion for the part of us that is like them.

I won’t be able to catch this dynamic right away every time it happens.  I will still get pissed off at the occasional customer.  I will need to have compassion for myself for having a hostile response to a customer.  Having compassion for myself will make it easier for me to have compassion for the hurting person in that customer.  Having compassion for them will make it more likely that I can have compassion for the hurting part of me that they remind me of.

And that’s not a bad deal at all.

A grocery store holiday greeting

(This post only started to formulate itself today – and kept bubbling up in me on and off all day.  Many or most of you may not see it until after Christmas, but my holiday wishes will still pertain.)

My standard greeting to people today was “Happy holidays”.  Besides my Jewish friends and customers, there’s Kwanzaa – and one lovely young woman in my line today said that when people wish her a Merry Christmas, she sometimes says, “I’m pagan and I celebrate the solstice.”  But when people wish me a Merry Christmas, I say it back: it’s my heritage and it is a day to celebrate Christ.  Whether or not you consider him the Messiah, he – along with others like the Buddha, Mohammed and others – certainly deserves to be celebrated.

Early in my 10-6 shift today, I got kind of obsessed with what was I really trying to communicate when I said, “Happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas”.  I realized that it’s different here at the grocery store, dealing with my customers, than it is in other parts of my life.  Here’s what I came up with.

“May the groceries I am selling you nurture you, be beautiful and delicious, and make you happy.

"May the food I am selling you nurture you...."

“May the food I am selling you nurture you….”

“May you get it that I care about you and like serving you.

“May you experience all of our staff as dedicated to your health and well-being – and that serving you is something we really like to do.”

“May the whole congregation that is our store feel to you like a community of like-minded souls...."

“May the whole congregation that is our store feel to you like a community of like-minded souls….”

“May the whole community that is our store feel to you like a community of like-minded souls, where people who care about their health. take personal responsibility for it and are willing to invest money in it come together – as a place where you meet old friends and have positive connections with new people you meet in the store, often in the checkout line.

“May all who gather around this food – at your table or someone else’s – thrive on this food and the good company,  If you will be spending a quiet day at home, may that be peaceful and fulfilling for you.

“May you have a wonderful new year, may our store be part of it, may I get to serve you again – and maybe even get to know you more, which would please me a lot.  Who knows, maybe this blog will increase your sense of connection with me, our staff, our store and your fellow customers.

“Happy holidays.”

This is so not about me….

I get juiced on the interaction with the customer.  The energy that gets exchanged between us makes the day light up.  But some interactions are not so much about me and are also really great.

When I get a couple in my line who are totally grooving on each other – especially if they are teasing and joking and having a lot of fun – I mostly sit back and let them play.  There may be little openings for me to join in the fun, but sometimes the energy between them is so strong that it’s better to mostly be an observer.

Sometime before the transaction is over – often after the money has changed hands and they are about to leave – I find my opening to affirm them, in some genuine way to say, “You’re cool”.

Cool couples can be any age.

Cool couples can be any age.

  • “Are you two always this funny.?” (“fun to be around”)
  • “How long have you two been together?”  Regardless of their answer, my response can be “You’re amazing!”
  • “You’re my coolest couple of the day.”
  • “You should get the lovebirds discount.”

So why make the fuss over these couples?

  1. Their energy really is good for the store.
  2. Their energy is a gift for everyone who gets to be around them – including me.
  3. I aspire to be in this kind of relationship, so celebrating theirs is good luck.  A really cool gay couple can also be good luck for this straight guy.
  4. But most of all, it affirms them.  To have a stranger (or relative stranger) observe a snippet of their relationship, hold it up to the light and proclaim, “This is good” – that can be a real gift to them.  And why not?

Seeing stars

Back in 1995, James Redfield’s book The Celestine Prophecy was a monster best seller.  I was a little suspicious of a “spiritual” book that was so commercially successful, but I kind of surprised myself by liking it quite a lot.

On the surface, the book is a novel – but actually the story, which is not the strongest aspect of the book, is a vehicle for spiritual teaching.  It did not seem to me that much of that teaching was original, but then how much spiritual teaching really can be original at this point – it’s really a matter of packaging old truths in fresh new ways that get our attention.  I think Redfield did a good job at that.

A couple of concepts from this 20 year old book have stayed with me.

A couple of concepts from this 20 year old book have stayed with me.

The idea from that book that has most stayed with me suggests that when you are having an encounter with another person, if you stick with the encounter long enough – often longer than is comfortable or beyond the point where you might otherwise have moved on – the purpose of your encounter with this person will often become manifest.  I have this experience a lot at work – and will devote tomorrow’s post to that arena.  Here I want to report three experiences I had tonight at the Jubilee (the funky non-denominational church I attend here in Asheville) Christmas party.

Edna is a very engaging, attractive, 5’4″ woman who told me that she had just recently celebrated her 62nd birthday.  I felt a little victorious connecting with her tonight because I remembered her name: over several years of being nodding acquaintances, I succeed at that only some of the time.  When I found myself standing next to her in the lovely hallway of the beautifully rehabbed Elizabethan mansion that our minister Howard reclaimed from disrepair over many years, I decided it might be a good time to get to know her a little – she has always seemed interesting, so I was enthused about this.  But when I’m manic – which I still am after ten days (it’s time when I usually will shift) – I tend to be restless, and after a few minutes of talking (even though it was all genuinely interesting) I was starting to think of some of the other people at the party that I wanted to connect with.  So when Edna said, “I have a story about my 62nd birthday that I could tell you if you want”, I had to think for a moment about whether I actually did want.

But the Redfield idea has been on my mind lately, and I decided to settle in and see what I might learn about my connection with Edna.  She proceeded to tell a gorgeous story about being out of her comfort zone camping in the western mountains at her son’s land, of waking at 2 a..m. on her birthday and coming out of the tent into the cold mountain air and having her mind blown by the brightness of the Milky Way.  The story goes on to have her wishing she could share this amazing moment with someone and her son promptly calling out to her and then coming out to join her – and a really gorgeous mother-son moment ensuing.  My eyes were moist by the end of the story and I had at least a first take on why we were meant to have that conversation. (Who knows what other layers may present themselves for me or her?  Writing this blog post is one more layer for me.)

The Milky Way in the mountains at 2 a.m. on her birthday blew Edna's mind.  Her story opened mine.

The Milky Way in the mountains at 2 a.m. on her birthday blew Edna’s mind. Her story opened mine.

A couple of brief conversations later, I encountered Matt – a big strapping 40ish guy who started our conversation by saying how much he likes the poetry and comedy I offer at Jubilee.  (I have done this four times a year for ten years and lots of people know me from it.)  After thanking him for the compliment – and being genuinely pleased by it, though I do get it a lot – I attempted to move the conversation along by asking “How long have you been coming to Jubilee?”  Even before the question was fully out of my mouth, I thought “Now what kind of a bullshit question is that?”  It’s like “Do you come here often?” in being destined to not generate any interesting answers.

But after he said “Six years” (“Yeah, so what?”) I had a better idea.  “In those six years, what have been some highlights for you of coming to Jubilee?”  Now Matt really warmed up to the conversation.  “The music and Howard’s talks.”  When I followed that with “What have you liked about Howard’s talks?” we were off and running.  Matt had lots to say – stuff that revealed his depth and sensitivity and passion about Jubilee.  It was great fun.

Jubilee is a special place.  Getting Matt talking about it revealed how special he is.

Jubilee is a special place. Getting Matt talking about it revealed how special he is.

My final conversation was with Victoria.  I had just a little bit started to get to know her several years ago, but she moved away and hasn’t been around much.  She always seemed interesting, though, so when I ended up standing next to her I felt good about talking with her.  But still, after just a couple minutes of talking, I noticed my body language: I was standing sideways, perpendicular to her.  I was not committing to the conversation at all – I was poised to leave!  I realized that – with the party about to end – the restless part of me was wondering who else I ought to see before I would go home.

I decided to let go of the restlessness and commit to Victoria – and to try one more experiment in discovering why this other person and I were having this encounter.  The answer didn’t take more than a minute to reveal itself.  I can’t trace back how we got there, but Victoria said that she was interested in the Asheville Movement Collective (AMC) “Dance Church” – the free-form improvisational dancing to which I am so passionately committed.  This gave me a chance to really ignite over a topic, which was big fun because Victoria was really interested.  I know from lots of experience that coming to AMC can change people’s lives – has mine – so it’s a lot of fun offering it to people.  And if Victoria never comes or comes and doesn’t like it, we had a conversation that connected us in a fun way and she spent some time thinking about her own creativity and her inner dancer.

Dance is one of my favorite ways to express my creative self, but each of these three people had given me a peek at their creative soul.

Dance is one of my favorite ways to express my creative self, but each of these three people had given me a peek at their creative soul.

I had three experiences in under two hours where what could have been routine conversations with regular people left me instead seeing stars.

Customers who piss you off…

Some customers radiate a vibe that you just can’t stand.  You perceive – accurately or inaccurately – hostility leaking out of them.  Other customers actively do something that pisses you off.  I’ll address some of each of these situations.

When a customer pisses you off, you have probably several options – I’ll talk about two of them.

  1. You could, on the spot, start writing a blog post about customers who piss you off.
  2. You could charm the pants off them.  The essence of this second strategy is to take it as a personal challenge to win them over.  I have experienced this, where the more pissy a customer was, the more excited I would get about “I’m going to make sure that something shifts for them before they walk away from this transaction.”  And when I would take that attitude, I was usually successful – though not always.

    I learned this approach from Cathy, a supervisor at the Biltmore Estate Carriage Shop gift shop who just loved that kind of challenge.  One day I was standing next to her when one of the other cashiers came over and said, “This woman is so mad that I just can’t deal with her.”  Cathy winked at me and said, “Watch me work.”  And she did it – she got that customer happy.  They were laughing together before the customer walked off.

Yesterday I had a customer, a very overweight 50 ish woman, who pissed me off – I don’t even remember why – and I used Option 1.  I mostly withdrew from her and got my little notepad out and started to jot notes for this very post.  It distracted me from her, it helped me avoid doing something nasty to her – which was always a possibility.  It took some of the pressure off.  It was only at the very end of the interaction that I decided to try some of the charm.  So I looked up at her – maybe almost the first time I looked at her since she first pissed me off – and said, sincerely, “That is one great hat – where did you get it?”  She said “I made it.”  Usually at this point you’re home free: compliment an item of clothing that the customer has made and you have a happy customer.  No, uh-uh – she barely cracked a smile.  But then, I did wait until the 11th hour to try being nice to her.  What did I expect?

Sometimes a customer pisses you off so much that winning them over is not really in the mix - the real issue is to get through the transaction without saying something that will get you written up or fired.

Sometimes a customer pisses you off so much that winning them over is not really in the mix – the real issue is to get through the transaction without saying something that will get you written up or fired.

Customer 2 was today – near the end of my shift, when I’ll admit that I was tired, running out of gas…risky terrain.  About 60 – tall and wiry – he presented very defended – strong male body armor, cold, hostile.  I immediately took a dislike to him.  I didn’t want him in front of me. When I reached that point in the interaction where I often ask “What’s been a highlight of your day?”, I considered it and inside said “No way! I’m not going to waste that nice question on this guy -I’m not giving him the time of day.  Screw him.”

A few moments after that, I swiped his last two purchases – two cartons of Roots hummus. He said, “Those were supposed to be two for the price of one.”  I said, “Let me call grocery and find out about that.” If I could have pitched my voice to a tone that would have intentionally and clearly said, “I bet you’re wrong”, I would have done it. Maybe I did do it.  When I got back the message from grocery that it was in fact another brand that had that special price, did I in any way betray some satisfaction at his downfall? I cannot with confidence say that I did not. Even though we had finished ringing his groceries and it was time for him to just pay and move on – and there was another customer patiently waiting her turn while we did this price check – he stormed off to go back and look for himself.

I apologized to the next customer – a tall, lovely young woman – and, in a very unprofessional moment, allowed myself to vent to her about this guy.  Now, in my defense I will say that she had watched this whole situation devolve and had, I thought, been giving me some sympathetic looks.  “I’ve about had it with this guy.  He’s got no business keeping you waiting.  I’ve got half a mind to suspend his transaction and ring you through – but you’ve got a lot of groceries and he’ll have a fit.”  She was all reassurance: “Don’t worry about it.  I’m not in a hurry. I can see that you’ve got your hands full with him.”

He came back and angrily said, “It was false advertising.  The sign says ‘all varieties’.” I didn’t respond – didn’t even look at him.  “Your total is….” He paid his money and grumped off.

Charm is definitely the preferred way to go, but sometimes I just don’t have it in me – and sometimes it probably will get you nowhere.  But sometimes life takes care of you anyway.  As this jerk was leaving, Mary – who was running the breaks – told me to put up my “Lane closed” sign, which meant that I could count my money and go home.  This lovely young woman, with her big order that meant we could hang out with each other for a few minutes, was my last customer.  Sometimes, even when you kind of lose it, life treats you mercifully.