I once belonged to an artist’s cooperative in a nearby town. Artists and craftspeople could place their work in a boutique, and in exchange, they would take a shift helping to sell everyone’s art.
My day came, and I received instructions for ringing up orders and packing up the artwork. Flipping the sign on the door from closed to open, I took my seat behind the counter with a hot cup of tea in hand.
When the cowbell on the door signaled that I had a customer, I sat upright, eager to greet them. A middle-aged couple walked in, glanced at me for a millisecond and turned away to shop as if I didn’t exist, and worse, did exist but should be ignored at all costs. I called out helpfully, “Let me know if I can help you with anything” to which they shook their heads as if to silently say, “Yes, yes, we know that!” They meandered through the store and then walked out without a goodbye or a thank you.
The next group through the door, girlfriends out for a day of shopping, glanced in my direction and they, too, quickly averted their gaze. On the way out, one managed a weak “Thank you.” I went through this ritual throughout the day, as customer after customer came and went, barely acknowledging my existence. I found myself feeling more and more invisible. I’m not used to feeling invisible. So, this is working in retail, I thought.
Contrast this, with my experience when I lived and worked on a Caribbean island when I was younger. We were taught from friends who lived there many years: when you enter a shop, you never ignore the clerk. It’s considered the height of rudeness. You don’t just start shopping. You might greet the clerk, “Good morning. And how are you today?” Or, you might ask, “Isn’t this a lovely day we are having?” We put what is most important first, namely people.
I’m afraid we are in the habit of treating people as nonentities at times. I consciously remind myself as often as I can, that the man or woman who scans my groceries has a heart and a life that is filled with happiness and sorrow, as is mine. I try, as often as I remember, to make eye contact and wish them well. Do I always remember? No, I don’t. But it’s my conscious intention that I carry with me. When I forget, I often feel an opportunity was missed.
People talk about the epidemic of loneliness in the world, particularly in developed countries. I believe part of this, is that we are unaware of the people who are all around us in our everyday life, but whom we don’t take the time to notice. It is we who can make our world a friendlier place.
The American poet Lucy Larcom wrote, “If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” We can do that. We can create whatever kind of life we want in this world. It’s up to us.