By Tommy Raskin ’17

Tommy Raskin ’17
[Student view] I was a cashier at a grocery store for five weeks this summer. My co-workers were friendly, and the surrounding landscape was gorgeous, but clicking buttons on a register for seven hours a day, interrupted only by a 30-minute lunch break, proved dull. I hardly suffered the worst; for many, this sort of work remains year-round and inescapable.

I tried spicing things up. Before the lines got too long, I would play magic card tricks on customers. Later, when nobody was checking out, I’d glance down at The New York Times, only to have my superior snatch it out from under me.

Confined to my thoughts, paid tasks and transient interactions with buyers, I found it refreshing when customers were kind. It was gratifying when people approached me with a salutation, a compliment or even a remark about shopping (“I finally found the grapes!”). The longer and more intricate the discussion, the more fun I had.

Nice words don’t pay the bills. Complimenting underpaid Americans doesn’t raise their wages, and common courtesy doesn’t give people the tools they need to self-actualize. But that doesn’t make civility worthless.

Not all of my customers were friendly. I didn’t mind being the one to initiate a conversation, but it was frustrating to receive dismissive answers to, “How’s your day going?” I never minded relaying a customer’s complaint to management, but I didn’t like being berated for others’ mistakes—“not watering the plants,” for example, and “not putting up a price sheet near the cherries.” When your encounter with a worker lasts only a minute, it’s hard to consider it significant, but the sequence of these brief exchanges makes up an employee’s entire work day.

When I toured Amherst last year, I slept in a suite sometimes visited by a cleaning crew. I awoke to a vacuum running one morning and, a bit disgruntled, stepped into the common area. A worker, roughly 60, started apologizing, even though I’m not sure he was the one who was vacuuming.

Then, well beyond the call of duty, he continued the conversation. He asked if I was an Amherst student, to which I said no, and then whether I planned on attending, and which classes I had enjoyed checking out so far. He expressed a genuine interest in me.

I vowed, from that point on, to let my own courtesy uplift me. We should consider everyone’s capacity for gentility equivalent—while not forgetting the disproportionate economic strain and physical stress placed on hourly employees. We should show the cashier as much respect as we show the CEO. In every interaction, we are capable of empathy.