Chatting with Sales Assistants

Wednesday 23rd November

I have a friend, Liz, who works in Retail – she is actually an Area Sales Manager now, but for a few years she was on the shop floor.  She works for a luxury skincare product which is sold exclusively in high end stores such as Harrods, Selfridges and John Lewis.  She was telling me about how she had to train her staff to engage with the customer, to establish eye contact, and to start a conversation, all in order to break down any barriers, perceived or otherwise, and to help sell the product.  She asked me in passing if I usually chatted to sales assistants, and I had to think about it for a moment, and my answer was no, I did not.  “Not even in Starbucks, say, when buying a coffee, don’t you ask them if they are having a pleasant day, etc?”  “Well, no, quite the opposite really, I just ask for my coffee, and decline their habitual invite to buy a snack, then when they repeat my order ‘a grande latte’ I correct them by politely repeating my original order for a medium latte, thank-you.” And it is true, I don’t just chat to people I do not know.  I don’t have that free and easy manner with strangers; it isn’t that in any way I consider myself above them, or any of that nonsense, it simply never occurs to me.

But this conversation set me wondering, was I so different from everyone else; had my upbringing somehow made me more reserved than most people; had Grandma succeeded in her task of bringing me up to be a typical middle class snob ?  I must admit that when I first started working I was very reserved and found it almost intimidating to engage in idle chit-chat, it was more that I didn’t see the point in just exchanging pleasantries rather than having anything meaningful to say, and had found all too often that when you tried to turn the conversation to anything serious you were met with a stare, as if you had made some sort of faux-pas by actually wanting to discuss something that might matter. And I think that this is the nub of the matter with me; I am more than happy to talk to anyone about something that I care about, but as to whether they are having a nice day or how rainy the weather is when I don’t even know them seems quite pointless.  Surely they must know that I don’t really care and am only saying these things to be polite, but what if they consider me to be impolite to not say this kind of thing.  So, I decided to do a bit of people watching.

In the queue at Starbucks, or when in Waitrose I started to observe other people a bit closer, and listening in, to see if they were more communicative than I, and the amazing thing was that hardly anyone did actually chat to people serving in shops, even in John Lewis, except to ask on which floor children’s clothes were or some other enquiry.  Absolutely nobody in Starbucks chatted, except for a perfunctory hello, or a query about whether their products contained nuts or dairy products, there was simply no small talk.  Maybe this is just a London effect, and in smaller communities, people do chit chat with strangers, but London is all I know.

So, who was right, Liz or I?  I suspect that both of us are in our own way; it may simply be that for people like Liz, who are dealing with the general public, in effect people they do not know, all day long, it is perfectly natural to talk to them, to break the ice with a polite enquiry about their day or the weather, but for myself, who, even in my working days, was never talking to people I did not know, it is just as natural to keep oneself to oneself.  I do sometimes wish I could be a bit more like Liz though, maybe I will try it tomorrow when ordering my Starbucks, we’ll see.