February 9, 2014
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Just making conversation

If you’re one of those people who “never met a stranger,” you’re going to think I’m a real grouch. Even if you’re not, you may still think I’m a grouch but that’s beside the point. I think I’m a private person and that there are lots of people like me. The super-friendly person often starts a conversation by asking a question. If I don’t feel like answering it, then it makes me the bad guy. They are, after all, just making conversation and I don’t want to play.

Those who deal with the public all the time (retail clerks, airline gate agents, waiters) probably get tired of making polite chit-chat with the people they see all day long. And yet their employers have apparently told them to engage the customers in conversation and show an interest in them as individuals. What’s missing here is a definition of how to do that without intruding on personal privacy. Some things just need to be spelled out.

It’s fine to make conversation about the weather, the traffic, how the local baseball team is doing, but some topics are potentially insulting or intrusive. Before “just making conversation,” it’s often a good idea to count to three—slowly—and ask yourself if it’s inappropriate or just plain wrong.

Some questions I’ve been asked by complete strangers make me want to say something outrageous. Just to see if they’re paying attention. To turn the question back on the questioners so they can feel embarrassed. I would never actually do that, but I think about it. These inane questions show how easy it is to misinterpret a set of items or circumstances (and why you should leave them alone).

Here are some answers I wish I’d given:

Person

Question

I wish I’d said…

Airline ticket agent (Glancing at some random guy behind me in line) Soooo—are you and your husband going on a vacation? Shhhh! He’s not my husband. We’re both married to other people and our spouses think we’re on a business trip.
Fabric store clerk What are you going to make with all this pink flannel? A disguise. I plan to rob a bank dressed as a giant bunny.
Hardware store cashier Hmm—concrete patch, padlock, rebar—what kind of project are you doing? A modest torture chamber under my house… nothing fancy.
Rental car agent So what brings you here—business or pleasure? Seriously? I’m in the middle of <bleeping> nowhere. Who would come here for pleasure?
Business supply clerk That’ll be $25.60, with $2.11 tax (eyeroll) for the governor… bummer, right? I voted for him.
Gift shop clerk Wednesday is Senior Discount Day!
Shall I ring it up with the discount?
I’m 29. I’ve just had a hard life.

The management of a grocery store in my neighborhood once mandated that all cashiers should look at your check or credit card and then say your name three times during checkout. Some “expert” had told them that people like this.

“There you go, Rebecca. Thanks for shopping with us, Rebecca. See you next time, Rebecca.” Three times. Just in case that creepy guy behind me in line who had followed me from the frozen food section (and is now going to follow me into the parking lot) didn’t hear it the first two times.

If your occupation puts you in contact with the public, remember that some people just want a pleasant—and anonymous—business transaction, not a new best pal. As for the grocery store, their policy did affect my buying behavior. I limited my purchases there to small, incidental things (in cash) and shopped at another store for groceries.

The company mandate apparently doesn’t have a guideline for that.

***************

Is there a great book in you?

Writing the Bestseller: Romance and Commercial Fiction, a project I did with novelist Jane Porter, is now available on Amazon as an ebook. Print version to follow soon.

 

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  1. Christina

    I don’t understand why you would not say some of the things you thought about? The torture chamber comment (really funny, btw) in these times of mass hysteria might have gotten you a visit from the police, so I understand that one. (I’d'a been tempted to do it anyway, it’s almost too good to resist.) And in the grocery store, you surmised that it was a policy and not the clerk’s fault, therefore unless you were in a real hurry, why did you not have a conversation with the manager? It’s not too late for that one, as you have altered your buying habits but you still occasionally go to that store, so you could include an educational visit to the manager on your next stop. I have politely educated a lot of back tellers about the old policy of counting out cash, quietly, and behind the counter (but still in view of the patron) so the guy behind me does not know how much cash I will be crossing the parking lot with. In my view, politely (or not so politely depending on the situation) educating in some of the situations you outline, and similar, is a Public Service.

    A simple and effective way of dealing with this was taught to me when I lived with a Greek family in Greece. They taught that if anyone asked such inappropriate questions, I was to say, “Why would you ask me that?” And I was to look at the person blandly, and silently until they answered. It’s amazingly effective, can be said politely, and it’s quite customizable… ie WHY would you ask me that? Why would YOU ask me that? Why would you ask me THAT?

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  2. Admin

    Sometimes it’s more fun to just think about funny retorts than to actually say them. As for the grocery store, the mandate came from the head of the national chain, so the local store manager was no more responsible for it than the cashier. And that all happened in Seattle, where I used to live. The “Why would you ask that?” response is a good one and works in a social situation. In a retail store, I just want to take my purchases and go home. I may be a curmudgeon, but I’m a non-confrontational one. :-)

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