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shopping as religion

Faking it?

shopping as religionConsumerism is a religion. The one who dies with the most stuff wins. Shopping malls are the temples…

And shopping assistants are increasingly acting like they are the new dispensers of pastoral care:

How are you today?” “Have you had a busy weekend?” (that’s the Protestant/Catholic/Calvinist work-ethic denomination where busy = positive). “What have you been doing this morning?” “What do you have planned for the rest of the day?” etc.

Actually, you read it here first: they don’t really care. The words do not correlate to their dictionary definitions. They are faking it. They are lying.

They certainly do not have the training or the skills to deal appropriately with honest responses to their interrogations. Nor is the environment or the time allocated appropriate.

This just happened to me: I was buying a card at a bookshop. The teenager behind the counter started this grilling of the woman ahead of me in the queue: “What have you been up to today?” She replied with something I did not hear. Perhaps the attendant didn’t either, or perhaps he was distracted finding the bar code to scan. In any case essentially he repeated his question to her in similar words. The woman, apparently thinking this was a genuine request, started with increasing distress to explain in great detail the particulars of the family member whose deathbed she was just away from in order to make this purchase – and so on. It all ended in fumbling embarrassment.

Here’s the thing. If commerce wants to take on the pastoral care dimension of religion alongside plagiarising and abusing our religious language in your advertising, etc. then train your clergy. Otherwise, have shop assistants stick to general politeness and helping people achieve their shopping goals.

Clarification: This is obviously not the fault of the nice young people behind the counter, doing what they are told, trying to be friendly, receiving minimum wages, and following the instructions of those far better remunerated who are training them. This is about reflecting on the appropriateness of customer service training trends.

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19 thoughts on “Faking it?”

  1. Hugh McCafferty

    My usual response to ‘how are you?’ from shop assistants is ‘parts of me are excellent.’ And to ‘have you had a busy day?’ – ‘I try to avoid business’.

    1. Wonderful, Hugh. This is shifting from consumerism as religion to revising the liturgical response to their presiding cue!

      And then there’s the (heard) ambiguity of “business” and “busyness”…


    1. Good phrase. In fact I think I will use it from the other side of the counter. My counter is actually an info counter and not a cashwrap.

      And the photo IS excellent.

  2. Robert Voorwinde

    Even within the confines of our parish, sometimes we are presented with a situation where we are placed in a pastoral care moment, but we feel totally inadequate as to what the
    ‘correct response’ should be.
    There is no correct way. We can only draw on our own experiences to deal with the matter at hand.
    Having said that, I do not recommend walking away from pastoral obligations, rather assist as much as you are able, and if more specialised counceling is required, refer them to those qualified.

    1. I have, through my spouse, been on the receiving end of no help, to the end of hinderance or contact at all. Pastoral care seems to confound many. I don’t know if maybe we have lost all sight of proper manners? Does being in this “job” wear people down too quickly? I’ve been through a lot since 1979 and I’m not so sure I can take any more. I used to wonder why there were no women in church in my current age group. Now I think I know why.

    2. Gillian Trewinnard

      Yes, like the time some newcomers to the district came to church to see if anyone would raise their beloved dead cat back to life – it was in their van, and had been for 3-4 days. I declined to attempt it, but tried to offer some sympathy on their loss. Was delighted when I heard they had buried the dear old moggie that afternoon.

  3. Brian Poidevin

    Oh dear me. and often I have quite pleasant chatswith shop assistants, some of whom i now know ell enough to have longer chats if not holding others up.. courtesy for courtesy. I will admit to some irritation when held up by longer chats, a problem in country towns. However the religious significance is drawing a long bow.

  4. My wife is a “sales associate” at a chain department store; what you say is true.

    It can be a horrible godless environment, both for those who work there and those who shop. But when a Christian (or Jew, or other person of faith) finds himself in such a job, they must bear the Light as best they can, and I can attest that my wife does that. I have seen her trying to genuinely connect with her customers, even it is no more than a smile and a kind word — not an empty scripted fake word, but something genuine.

    And customers can make a difference too. She has to put up with an amazing amount of abuse from people. It is a blessing, a small bit of Grace, when someone is nice to her.

  5. Thank you Andrew. A teenager might think he is asking an appropriate question. And he might be wrong. Management doesn’t tell them what to say, management wants employees to “engage” the customer. Yeah, I used to be management. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult. And OFTEN these days we are trying to do 3 things at once. It might seem rude to you, but this is your opportunity to shine. Go for it.

  6. Ted Gerbracht

    As a layperson and committed Christian, I often turn the situation around with “I’m fine, and how’s your day going?” Whether it is a server in a restaurant, salesperson behind a counter ins a store, or even someone standing next to me on the train platform, this sometimes elicits a response that turns into a conversation about THEIR concerns and issues. Low wages, dreary repetitive work, little real human-human interaction — these often come bursting out. A pastoral moment, maybe?

  7. Is “Have you had a busy day?” an Antipodean expression? I’ve never been asked that by a shopkeeper in Canada, the US, or the UK.

    It strikes me that the Church itself has erred in making this kind of “pastoral concern” a central plank of its consumer marketing strategy. Our flagship products are Truth and Grace. It is as purveyors of those products that we have traditionally commissioned our clergy (“be thou a faithful dispenser…”).

    1. The “busy” option, Jesse, would be one of the standards in the liturgical dialogue of this religion here, and I’m fascinated if that is a NZ phenomenon. Yes, being busy, and seen to be busy, is highly valued here – over being effective.

      Your second paragraph is a whole other, fascinating discussion.


  8. So…what do you do when you have a clergy member who shows no interest in pastoral care? I church I attended for many years had called a new priest, when I introduced myself to him, I stated that I worked at a local hospital and would be happy to show him around and introduce him to the staff, etc. He never took me up on it. I do feel that pastoral care is responsibility of all, but if a priest is supposed to be the ‘good’ example of ‘flock’ leadership what do you do when he/she doesn’t want to do it?

  9. I don’t really think it is a fair assessment to say that consumerism is a religion and retail employees are the clergy. We are told to see Christ in others at all times, aren’t we? We don’t just turn it on each Sunday. I work in a bookstore, people discuss their situations and I have to determine what they are looking for. This gives me an opportunity to be something other than a repressed retail cyborg. This reminds me of people complaining about being told to “have a nice day”. If you see the person behind the counter as your servant rather than a fellow human being, perhaps you are the problem. Discuss?

    1. I am not talking, Mary, about a genuine conversation. Quite the opposite. I am talking about a busy store with a queue at the check-out. And receiving a barrage of questions about what I have been doing today, this weekend, and what I plan to do this evening, tomorrow – from a complete stranger. The exchange is not to extend beyond the return of the credit card, and the questions are usually addressed to the articles being scanned rather than with any real eye contact. Blessings.

  10. I think over-friendliness in shop assistants can be quite intrusive, the lady in the bank asked me yesterday how long I’ve been divorced! My response ‘that’s quite an impertinent question…’ but in any case after 12 years of living in America where ‘how are you?’ is a greeting and nothing more ( the old-fashioned ‘how d’ya do’ seems less confusable )my response is always ‘hello’, and I’ve perfected the art of smiling whilst ignoring questions I don’t want to answer. Saves embarrassment all round I’ve found…I’m happy to joke or exchange pleasantries with people but not to talk about health etc.

    It’s not just in superficial relationships though, lack of consideration. A friend was asking me questions on the telephone this week, I almost didn’t reply, but mid-way through telling her some serious stuff she interrupted ‘I’d better go get my husband his supper!’

    I just don’t think some people are very couth : )

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