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?