The (Supermarket) Help


I dunno if it’s hypno-herited British reserve, a livid lick of BPD paranoia, introverted aloofness or a mixture of all three but shop assistants asking if I need any help make me squirm; which is bad news because on this side of the pond that’s considered service – people expect it. Nevermind that it’s totally forced. Seems it’s better to have someone deem you worthy of the performance than just make do with honest human civility between strangers.

It was a shock at first – this overly genial, over-enthusiastic invasion of my private reverie accompanied by the searching strobe light of a megawatt smile that didn’t quite reach the eyes. We’d both come away confused – me wondering if they had psychological issues, them puzzled over why I hadn’t got a copy of the rulebook.

Expat life is full of little choices – opportunities to trade in your old behaviour for something exotic and new. You can assimilate or stand your ground, falling into the pauses when you don’t keep to the script. I do a bit of both. I’ve made a mental note to eavesdrop for the standard response to “Do you need bags?” at the supermarket though; every time I say, “I’m good thanks” the clerk looks momentarily perplexed as though wondering just what question I’m answering. We muddle through but it’s clear one of us needs to change…

Standing at the checkout in Walmart at the weekend, I was reminded of one cultural difference that still makes me uncomfortable, even after three years here. (Here are some I’ve since got used to…) While some grocery stores leave you to your own devices once they’ve scanned your purchases through, others on this vast continent still charmingly pack your shopping for you.

Canada’s full of Charming – from the old-style open counter banks (where you can touch the staff but the pens are chained to the counter) to the lemonade stalls kids run from their houses that would never get past ‘elf”n’safety back home. 

The cashier usually asks if this is a service you’d like to avail yourself of, but in Walmart I guess it’s their gimmick that you don’t even need to think about it – they’ve foreseen all your possible desires (this is immediately obvious from a glance at their clothes department).

The poor harried cashier, having had to contend with the cream of humanity (you’re familiar with Walmartians, right?), packages of loo roll requiring a forklift to transport and humongously heavy watermelons (just a few of my imagined downsides to the job), is also expected to sweep your consumables into vast numbers of plastic carrier bags of a one-use-only fragility (or are they manufactured with that little hole at the under seam?) coloured a despair-inducing grey.

Back in the good old U of K, the only time anyone EVER offered to pack for me (not help me, that’s different, and you soon learn to say “No thanks” and human shield the Hovis after a few bruised tomatoes and a squashed loaf) was when the Boy Scouts were doing Bob-A-Job Week. The rest of the time you were on your own. Blitz mentality and all that. But at least we had half decent carrier bags that brightened many a tree or gutter.

Something about the whole thing makes me feel awkward; shifting feet back and forth, arms useless and keys jangling, with no social script for this. I don’t know where to put my eyes, and I’m suddenly ultra-conscious of my arms hanging by my sides – it just gets worse if you try putting hands on hips, the only thing that’s missing is a bullwhip. Just the passive act of waiting feels like pressurising the cashier to be quicker. Is it a British thing to feel uncomfortable watching someone else run around after you or are we back to my personality type again?


By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


    1. Hi Maggie, thanks for stopping by, wish I could hear some of the pipe playing you’re currently being treated to.
      Hmmmm, Walmart is indeed cheap but what’s the true cost? They’ve driven down the accepted level of quality to the point where we’re a throw-away society. Socks bobble after their first wash and I’ll never forgive them for the mascarpone just this side of edible that could have ruined a dinner-party… *fumes*
      I hate the place but three kids and a budget mean I’m an occasional visitor.

    1. Glad I’m not the only one who ‘has a system’ (called commonsense) 🙂

      Yes, it’s just bizarre isn’t it, this solicitation of strangers. If I have a question I’m usually capable of identifying a member of staff and articulating it. Perhaps next time someone asks us if we’re ‘alright there” we should say ‘Yes thanks, now… was there something I could help you with?’

  1. One of the joys of moving back to Blighty is the chance to browse without being bothered. Casual shopping in Turkey is a bruising experience, tried only by the determined or the thick skinned. Some people love being followed around. Me, I hate it. The checkout assistants at our local Tesco’s always ask if I want help with the packing but I know they don’t really mean it 🙂

    1. I can’t imagine what it must have been like in Turkey. I used to get into enough trouble shopping for shalwar qamiz in Southall and Green Street – the shopkeepers would engage you in conversation and start draping beautiful garments across the countertop, one over another, over another. I’d tell them I thought they were all lovely but I didn’t want any of them – K was forever telling me not to ‘bite’, as soon as you start chatting they think it’s just a matter of reeling you in!

  2. “I’m Dutch, married to and American an living in the US for the time being (I’m a serial expat and keep moving.) In the stores I grab the bags and start packing myself sometimes, sometimes not, depending on how it works out. I guess I don’t even notice anymore. And as for the “friendly service” you get in the USA, I do find it a bit over the top sometimes because the kids/people are trying too hard to follow their training and sound natural 😉 Americans often find the Dutch very rude and unfriendly, which is just their interpretation of the more pragmatic and businesslike approach to things. Dutch people often express extreme dislike for the “phoniness” of American service people: “Hi, I am Steve,and I’ll take care of you this evening,” in a restaurant for instance.

    There is a blog post on a site called Things Dutch People Like that broached this subject and it got an avalanche of responses re the fakeness of Americans etc. Here’s the link

    It’s a hoot to read.

    Hang in there 😉

    1. Hey there stranger! How are you? Thanks for dropping by and sharing the link – I could kind of see it from both sides and I know for me personally a lot rides on what kind of mood I’m in on any given day. I guess different nationalities have different ideas about the expression of friendliness. Great to see you, off to have a read of your blog – it’s been too long.

  3. i agree with you 100% on this, there is nothing more uncomfortable than watching someone pack your stuff…i always imagine they are ‘judging’ what im buying too!

  4. Great post. Really made me laugh. I just don’t think the whole “service with a smile” thing is something we’re used to in the UK. But in equal measures I hate the other side of the coin – the miserable checkout staff who can barely mutter more than a civil grunt in your direction as they ring in your goods.
    And as someone who volunteered to pack bags with my son, to raise money for his scout troupe, many British people have a whole packing system when it comes to groceries. They don’t appreciate you just throwing things in a bag willy nilly and messing up their mojo.

    1. Absolutely – I was trained vociferously by my husband (who’s an engineer – they go in for that kind of stuff in a BIG way…) Thanks for popping by and stopping to comment.

  5. I’m posh and shop in Waitrose. Sometimes they pack my bags for me at the ‘baskets only’ bit, but sometimes they don’t. They’ll do it as they scan, rather than waiting until everything is scanned and then doing it.

    I’d feel a right berk standing there watching someone pack my quiche and peanut butter up.

  6. Come on down to southern Africa to really squirm when you get your bags packed, & your trolley wheeled, and unloaded into the car….because it provides someone with a job and a wage. 9 years in I’ve finally got used to it, nay even enjoy it. And given up on a system – I just unload the trolley in some sort of order & leave the bread/eggs till last. #expatproblems, anyone?
    They look at me strangely in Morrisons now when I actually ask for help, but in Waitrose even the staff are too posh to show surprise 😉 Plus when we’re home on holiday my sons loudly ask things like “where are the people to help with the bags, Mummy?” and “why are you getting out & putting petrol in the car? who is going to clean the windscreen?” Er, that’ll be me. I worry how they will cope with real life in the UK one day!

    1. This made me smile Eleanor! What you said about your boys reminded me of something I read a few moments ago about the importance for expats to keep the quirks of their new home in perspective. A large part of that is simply not being judgemental, and that’s something everyone can work on. We live in such a reflexively ‘judgy’ world, without that baggage moving between cultures would be so much easier.
      Thanks for your insight into how Africa changes you.

    2. Little bit out of date now, but just came across this lovely blog! I am a German based in London with a South African boyfriend and we’re both getting fed up with the UK.

      Just as I read your post I started thinking about my visits to SA and the first time we went to the petrol station I was so confused… 5 guys trying to get you to use their pump. 2 guys cleaning the window. One putting the petrol in and cashing out.. I was like wow – I do know how to put petrol in the car, but then it is the job side of things!!

      Life is different in different places and we should keep an open mind.

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