Civility in Small Doses

June 13, 2010

When I walked into Trader Joe’s recently, an overzealous clerk greeted me in quite a friendly way, giving me an undeserved smile. I smiled back and returned his enthusiastic “How are you?” making eye-contact and returning the smile (but with a little less effervescence). A few moments later, he made his way from the vegetable bin he’d been stocking and walked deliberately to where I was deciding which bread to buy.

“Thank you for inquiring as to my well-being,” he started. “I’ve greeted more than fifty people today, and you’re the first one that’s asked how I was doing. What ever happened to just general civility? I really appreciate that,” he finished. I stammered something, and I agreed with him in general principle with something polite. He went back to his vegetables and I continued my shopping.

But the interchange made me think. He was right. As a society, we’re in too big a hurry. We’re taught not to talk to strangers, and for good reason. But it’s tipped the scale to the opposite extreme. We’re becoming a people that doesn’t socialize at all. People sit in the same room and text one another. We prefer Twitter or Facebook to an actual human voice on the telephone (at least some do; I haven’t quite figured out Facebook and I refuse to become a Twit!).

Another occasion brought up the subject again for me. While I was grocery shopping at Kroger this morning, Gary parked the car and came in to talk to the lady at the bank inside the store. After I’d finished and checked out, he called me over to the bank window. As he did, a lady came from behind the open counter and introduced herself, and — going right past my outstretched hand — embraced me in a hug. “I’m so glad to meet you!” she said. “We so enjoy Gary. He talks about you.” She put her hand up and pretended to whisper, “He really loves you!” She carried on with a little small talk.

Although I’m sure part of that exchange was professional, I believe most of it was genuine. And it felt good to be welcomed, without any agenda, and treated like an individual. Like somebody thought I was a momentary celebrity. Sometime I’m going back to that bank and greet her by name and see if she remembers mine (eternal skeptic that I am).

I learned a lesson from a friend last year who was visiting from a small island in Alaska. Where she lives, everybody knows everybody. We were in a grocery store together (no – I don’t really spend my life shopping… just in this blog!!). At the check-out stand, no one was behind us. My friend answered a question the clerk asked and then returned a question. She asked the girl’s name. Something came up about the cashier’s family, and my friend expressed genuine concern, asked more questions and found out that someone in the cashier’s family had been murdered and she’d been raised by grandparents. She hadn’t been able to forgive. It was a five-minute conversation, but I’ll never forget how that young girl just opened up her life and her pain because a stranger genuinely cared.

I want to be more careful about seeing people who serve me in any capacity as individuals. It doesn’t hurt to ask a waitress’s name and even ask her if there’s anything you can pray for her about when you pray over your meal. A grocery clerk might not tell you her life story, but there’s no telling how much brighter her day might be if she thought someone cared that her feet hurt. The yard man just might welcome a cool glass of tea. You never know.

Civility. Let’s not let it become extinct.

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4 Responses to “Civility in Small Doses”

  1. Jennifer Laminack Says:

    Oh, I loved this post! This topic has been a burden on my heart for a very long time, how people treat other people simply as machines instead of real people with lives and thoughts and feelings just like themselves. And my feelings on this grew exponentially while I was working with “food services.” Definitely helped me gain an appreciation for other people in food services and retail. How much I wish we lived once again in a world when people actually talked to each other and waved at everyone and smiled and actually cared. Anyway, I think I might be beginning to ramble. But just know that this blessed me to know that someone else is now sharing my burden. Never underestimate the power of eye contact and a genuine smile 🙂 With that one simple act you can start a ripple that will rock the world.


    • Very well spoken. Lately I’m trying to notice and remember the names of waiters, waitresses, cashiers, etc. if they’re wearing nametags. You never know when just calling someone by their name may be the only time they hear it that day…

  2. paulmerrill Says:

    Great post, Jenny.

    I agree – and always try to treat everyone I encounter with dignity. (That’s a challenge when I see the yellow-haired homeless guy that hangs out at our local Macdonald’s.)

    I did want to comment that the “How are you doing?” phenomena is more common in the south. Such niceness can be very thin at times – but it’s still nice.


    • True – Many people use it– appropriately in our culture–just as a greeting, and don’t really expect a response. But sometimes it makes a difference to someone. I guess that’s where prayer for discernment plays into the situation, eh?


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