I was in Barnes and Noble on Sunday wandering the isles.  I went to the front desk to ask for help.

Good news!  No line!  The front desk was deserted except for a single employee.  I noticed that she was rooting around in a desk.

As a good Canadian, I am not allowed to interrupt someone rooting around in a desk.  I stand close enough that they can sense my presence and wait for them to acknowledge me.  That’s the rule.

Well, the BN employee just kept rooting.  She could tell I was there.  I could tell she could tell I was there.  Her behavior become more and more self conscious.  But she was damned if she was going to look up.  Because this was, I guess, her time, and customers are just ungrateful wretches (who order from Amazon in any case). 

She kept rooting.  Even when it was clear that there were no discoveries left to make in the drawer.  Even when she was reduced to examining a mechanical pencil as if it might contain one of the mysteries of the universe. 

Finally, I stepped forward and said, “Hi, could you help me?”

She would not admit that she could help me.  She merely waited for me to ask something.  So I did.  (We cue well, Canadians do.)

“Could you look up Gaiman’s American Gods?  What section would it be in?”

She stared at me a moment, and then said,

“Oh, you would have to ask Customer Service,” and pointed to a desk a half football field away. 

This despite the fact that she was not occupied (except for that mysterious pencil) and had internet access immediately at hand. 

We can guess what was happening here.  This poor women had been treated so badly so often by so many consumers in Connecticut that this was her chance to get her own back.  And I can’t say I blame her.  Even when she was rewarding my courtesy with her rudeness. 

A little later, when Pam and I were standing in line, I couldn’t help noticing that she was engaging in a pleasant and animated way with a customer.  And it seemed to me that she had used our engagement to right the tables.  It’s a crude mechanical system.  The way to recover from Connecticut rudeness is to inflict a little of it yourself.  It’s expunges the debt or something.  You feel a great deal better.  Which would make this an important exchange in the psychic economy that organizes urban retail. 

And then I thought: the retail industry ought to hire and train “soakers.”  These people are a little like Secret Shoppers, except their job is to travel from salesperson to salesperson and soak up the animus that prevents these people from doing their job with grace and courtesy.

Soakers don’t have to be Canadians.  But I think this might help. 

3 thoughts on “Soakers

  1. Steve Portigal

    So that’s a sort of Conservation of Energy law for service interactions? It can not be created or destroyed, only moved from form to form? I like it.

    A few years ago after a really horrendous travel experience that trapped us in Denver overnight, we arrived at the airport at our destination and went looking for our bags, which weren’t where they were supposed to be. We went into one of those baggage service rooms that sits adjacent to a carousel, and there was a guy with a pilot-type of cap (as opposed to the can-I-help-you vest) and he stood at the computer at the desk as the only in the room and tappa-tappa-tappad. And we stood there politely (me also as a Canadian) and waited for some eye contact or some acknowledgement. At some point it became clear that he was simply not going to acknowledge us (maybe he wanted to check his email and this was the best place he could find to do it, he wasn’t really “on the job” thanks) and for a few moments there it became almost fun to stand there and see how he could possibly ignore every ingrained automatic social imperative that compels us to acknowledge another entity. I thought he was a complete tool, but was amazed at his inner strength.

    Oh and American Gods is the only Gaiman I’ve read but I really liked it.

  2. Virginia Postrel

    Or they could just automate, the way Borders has. I’d rather deal with a computer than a staff person anyway. The staffer always wants to follow you to the bookshelf and oversee your browsing.

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