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The power of idle chit-chat

Last year, Caroline O’Donoghue realised her headphones were stopping her from interacting with the real world. So she decided to change it

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

I am a person who lives in their headphones. Typing that, it seems far more pathetic than it actually is, but it's true. In 2016, I blitzed through the Brontës, the entire Northern Lights trilogy, the lesser-known novels of Nancy Mitford and Brideshead Revisited on Audible. I usually look up a podcast when I'm done, so I can get more context on the author or the time period that I'm hearing about. Why, yes, I do have an incredibly expensive phone-data bill. 

But my phone data wasn't the only thing getting a hard time. Unwittingly, my audio obsession was turning me into a bit of a div – I was going into shops and floating through my exchanges with cashiers, pausing only briefly to offer them a weak smile while I handed over my debit card. A tiny, "Hi, yep, just this, thanks," and out the door. Occasionally, a “How are ya?” compressed into a single syllable, to imply that I am very busy and do not have time for the answer. 

But, in November, it dawned on me just how shitty that kind of behaviour actually is. Did I treat waiters this way or bartenders? Definitely not – people who work in hospitality, for some reason, get my attention. There's something intimate and sociable about a person who brings you food or pulls you a pint – something naturally convivial. But cashiers, for some reason, I wasn't extending the same courtesy. Cashiers, who have the least perks of almost anyone in the retail industry – the least likely candidates for a tip – are the most likely to be forced to stand in the same spot for an entire shift. The least likely, really, to be seen or noticed at all, unless they do something wrong. 

Had I forgotten what it's like, when you work behind a till? I spent three long years standing behind one at HMV, mutely scanning DVDs and answering the same questions again and again. By year two, I could get by on three sentences a day: "Do you need a bag?", "I'll just check the stockroom" and "The film you're looking for isn't called Chucky; it's called Child's Play, where Chucky appears as a character." 

On the rare occasions someone would engage me in an actual conversation – when someone asked my opinion on a film, or just asked how my day was going – it made my day. OK, it might not have "made" my day but, in the dreary sameness of a nine-hour shift standing in the exact same spot, it would help the clock turn. The wait between 4:45pm and 5pm didn't feel quite so endless, or quite so impossible. Ultimately, and most importantly, a conversation with someone from the outside world made me feel seen. Like I wasn't just a mindless automaton whose employers longed to replace her as soon as technology would allow. I wasn't a "cashier". I was a person, a person who happened to stand behind a till, but still a person.

And so I've made sure that I ask every person who serves me – whether it's a refund on a dodgy bra or buying my lunch – how they are. And not just in a cavalier, "Hi, howareya, take my money and piss off" way. I mean actually, properly ask. How has your day been so far? What's up? Did you do anything nice for New Year? 

As conversation starters go, they're not exactly inspired. In fact, they're beyond basic – stuff only the dullest of dinner-party guests would ask. But I try to keep it about them, not about where they work. I try to avoid “Busy today?” or “When do you close?”

Ultimately, and most importantly, a conversation with someone from the outside world made me feel seen. Like I wasn't just a mindless automaton whose employers longed to replace her as soon as technology would allow

It makes my day nicer and it’s always lovely to come back in the next time and be remembered, and to pick up on the thread from the day before – to ask how Aaron, the barista at my coffee place, and his brother in Copenhagen are getting on long distance, or whether the two teenage girls who work the Thursday late shift at my Iceland are done fighting over who has to open on Sunday yet. And, occasionally, I get a little something back: an extra couple of stamps on my loyalty card maybe, the odd free plastic bag or (most blessedly at all) the staff wi-fi code. 

Maybe this wouldn’t feel like a big difference if I were living in a smaller place, where everyone tends to know everyone else and Julie Who Works In Asda was the same Julie Down The Pub On Friday, and having a seemless relationship between both Julies felt totally natural. But, ultimately, I live in London – a place that is as obsessed with status as it is with success. Friend groups are populated with people who work in the same field, or who share similar ambitions and connections. There’s an insistence that you “are” your job, and if your job is low-paid or not interesting enough to wow a stranger at a cocktail bar, then you, by extension, do not count. I know I’ve felt that way – there were the years I was festering in recruitment or in bar work, where I would catch new people peeking over my shoulder to see if there was anyone else “worth” speaking to. 

Which is why a small change like this – asking a cashier how they are and waiting, really waiting, for the answer – feels like a big difference. Because it’s kind and it’s considerate, and it pushes to one side the very 21st-century notion that we are only as interesting as our job titles are. It helps you make new friends – Aaron was on my Christmas-card list this year – and (crucially) gets your head out of your earphones and into the actual world around you. 

@czaroline

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