I’m from the Northeast, and Northeasterners (or maybe all East Coasters down to the mid-Atlantic) get a bad rap for being unfriendly — a rap that’s half true. I prefer to think of us as “guarded.” Partly it’s a matter of self-preservation. We live in cities crammed with people; some of those people could be psychopathic axe murderers. Therefore, we don’t make much eye contact with strangers on the street, we hardly ever talk to random people on the subway, and if you approach us and try to make physical contact, we may recoil like you have the Ebola virus.
Trader Joe’s is a company with California roots. Its employees wear Hawaiian shirts. They ring bells and refer to one another as “captains” and “first mates.” They get health insurance, and some of them are absurdly cheerful; I’ve seen them dancing around and singing while stocking shelves.
All of which is to say when you mix West Coast perkiness with East Coast wariness, there’s bound to be a slight culture clash.
Take the Trader Joe’s cashiers, who have clearly been trained to engage with the customers. And that’s a good thing — a friendly smile and basic chitchat sure beats the sullen grunts at most supermarkets. But where’s the line?
For example, I’m terrified of the color commentator — you know, the cashier who gives opinions on all your purchases. “Ooh, red pepper hummus. That’s delicious. Multigrain O’s. These are my favorite. Aaah, avocados. Are you making guacamole?”
Is this necessary? I’m glad you approve of my panko crumbs, but can you focus on scanning, please? Only at a supermarket could they get away with this. Can you imagine CVS cashiers opining on your basket of items? “Condoms! Great! And two-ply toilet paper… so much more absorbent!”
Then there’s the small talk factor, which on Saturday at the Foggy Bottom location, veered into the uncomfortable, and frankly, downright annoying. Little did I know as I wheeled my cart up that the cashier was preparing to go Robert DeNiro in “Meet the Parents.”
So what are you up to today?
What are your plans for tonight?
Where are you from?
Where do you live?
Where did you go to college?
What was your major?
What do you do?
I was all set to dive into a discourse on my professional strengths and weaknesses, until I remembered this wasn’t a job interview, and I was at Trader Joe’s!
I’m calling foul on this line of small talk — it’s just too much. I’m happy with a little banter, but you don’t need to know what I’m doing tonight. And this is Washington — a question like “What do you do?” could end up with me telling you, and then having to kill you. Plus, all the cashier’s yakking slowed him down and he did a lousy job of bagging. And finally, I like to watch the screen on the credit card machine to make sure items are ringing up correctly, which is hard to do when you’re being cross examined. That milk was $5.99, and huh, what’s that? What was my major?…Okay, $4 for the tomatoes, and…yes, my family is up in Boston.
Am I being an East Coast curmudgeon or are there others who also prefer that they pump the brakes on the chatter? What are your thoughts on the Trader Joe’s checkout experience?
Also, what are your plans for tonight?