“Mom, please,” the boy in front of us in line mutters as his mother berates the Target cashier while trying to return an item. She fixes her son with an icy glare and continues on her tirade, slamming a mug onto the counter so hard it chips. “Mom, you're causing a scene,” her son repeats, mortified.
I desperately avoid making eye contact with them, afraid they will see me inwardly cringing. I look at the long line snaking around shelves behind me, trying to discern others’ reactions. Their impatience is obvious, from their heads shaking angrily to frustrated sighs. People check their watches and throw their hands up in the air in exasperation.
“I don’t know,” apologizes the man behind the corner. His face is red and a sheen of sweat covers his forehead. “Let me call my manager,” he says. His breaking voice betrays the fact that he’s close to tears.
My dad turns to me. “I don’t care who you are and I don’t care who you are talking to,” he tells me. “You will never treat anyone with disrespect.”
On our way out of the store, that woman and her son are behind us. “Can you hurry up?” she asks me as I struggle with the weight of a shopping bag. My father holds the door open for her on her way out.
Years later, I am the Target cashier being yelled at for a return not going through. I know the receipt is wrong, or maybe it’s her card. I know it isn’t my fault. I ask the lady behind the counter to try another card — even her driver’s license would work — and she responds with a murderous stare.
“Are you telling me this is my fault?” she asks. “Would you like me to dump my wallet all over the counter so you can try every single card? Here I have this, do you want it?” she shouts, thrusting a crumpled receipt on the counter.
“Mom, please,” the girl whispers to her mom, placing a soothing hand on her forearm. “You’re causing a scene.”
When my manager arrives, he tells me to check something in the back, fixing me with a knowing glance. As I leave, I can feel the exasperated stares and angry sighs thrown in my direction. It wasn’t my fault, I want to shout. I wasn’t wrong.
Over time, I lose track of the things that I’m shouted at for. Sorry, we don’t have bags. Sorry, that item is out of stock. Sorry, we don’t sell that brand. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
The customer is always right, except that they are not. The customer is very often not right, but it doesn’t matter. It is not your job to decide when the customer is right and when they are not, because right now, you are not a person so much as an appendage to a corporation. The customer is always right, so apologize no matter how much you don't want to. Sorry, sorry sorry.
Just because someone is doing their job does not mean they are less worthy of respect. People make mistakes in their jobs — chefs add too much salt to a dish, cashiers charge you for an item twice, Uber drivers take a wrong turn, waiters forget about a table for a couple minutes. Those mistakes are frustrating when they waste your time and your money or when they happen on a day that is already going terribly wrong. But they are no excuse to view someone as less than a person capable of having a bad day, making mistakes or being tired. Someone making a mistake is no excuse to treat them as if they are unworthy of respect.
Working in retail showed me how little respect people can have for another person — especially for those in the service industry. I know that when you pay someone for a job or a service, expecting that service to be executed to a certain standard is reasonable. But it is equally reasonable to be kind, no matter how far from your standard the end result is. It is reasonable to see people as more than cogs in the machine of capitalism, to see them with a bit of humanity.
I don’t care who you are, I don’t care who you are talking to.
They deserve your respect.