Huffpost Business
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Annabel Osberg Headshot

Retail Workers Are Robotized in Our Scripted Society

Posted: Updated:

"Did you find everything OK?" the cashier at a large retail chain store asks me as she begins ringing up my items. Actually, I didn't. There were a couple of things that I had to search all over for. A floor worker helped me find one of them and look for the other, which the store turned out not to carry. But what would be the use of telling the cashier that? Once you're in the checkout line, it's a little late to be looking for things you couldn't find. Usually employees working the floor, not cashiers, help customers find items. So, I reply positively to the hollow question she has been programmed to ask every customer that goes through her line. The inquiry is pointless, so what good would it do to respond sincerely?

Giving a phony answer to a perfunctory question makes me feel mechanical, but the alternative is worse. Being honest would only inconvenience the cashier and others, depending on the script that her bosses compel her to perform. At the very least, she probably would be required to apologize, even though it isn't her fault that the store doesn't carry a certain item. At most, she might send someone out to look for the item again, holding up the entire line while another employee wastes time and effort looking for something that isn't there, redoing the work of the person who already helped me just to make sure he wasn't mistaken. The last time that happened, I learned that an insincere "Yes" makes things easier for everyone.

So, as a customer, my speech has become scripted, too. Unless I couldn't find anyone to help me before reaching checkout, I always give the same answer to the inevitable question. Experience has trained me to.

Many, if not most, large retailers standardize their employees' speech. For instance, a certain national fast food chain requires employees to always reply "My pleasure" when thanked, rather than "You're welcome" or any other of the already-limited options for polite response. At first, a customer might think the employees are particularly considerate. After it's happened a few times, it becomes apparent that they are only particularly regulated in their speech and behavior. Hearing the same response repeated time after time by different people, a customer's reaction might change from, "How polite" to "How puppetlike" to finally, "How annoying!"

It is annoying not only because of its pretentiousness and predictability, but also because it represents a loss of personality in employee-customer interaction. Managers and executives who craft premeditated scripts and require employees to recite them are robotizing their workers and patronizing their customers. Scripted behavior reduces a potentially meaningful interaction into total meaninglessness. The employee only responds in a certain way because he has to; the customer is also limited in choice of response because all the employees say exactly the same line, regardless of the nuance of the situation.

Does it really feel good to hear an employee utter inauthentic platitudes and questions forced upon her by her employer under threat of termination? Every time I say something that solicits a response that I know is scripted, I feel a little uncomfortable for making another person say something they might not normally be inclined to say. I would rather interact with a terse person than with a polite robot.

Obviously, many customers like their interactions to be scripted, or retailers wouldn't train their employees to always say the same thing. Maybe it gives some people a sense of security or stability to know exactly what the other person will say in a certain situation. Anticipating the other person's lines is relaxing, because you don't even have to think about how to respond. Likewise, the employee doesn't need to think about what he says; his boss has already told him what to say. He has become robotized. At work, he is not allowed to think for himself.

It isn't to say that employees shouldn't be required to be courteous to customers. On the contrary: If an employee is worthy to be hired, he should be trusted to think and to be polite to customers in his own words, without having to follow a script. Forcing an employee to parrot exact lines squelches his creativity and individuality, decreasing his enjoyment of his job. It stultifies his intellect, stunting the development of his skills and his evolution as a good worker.

Scripted situations reduce employees to mere marionettes with no audience save the puppet masters who are ready to eliminate anyone who flubs their lines. The more companies script those who work for them, the more employees and customers become co-opted into a mechanical system of actors performing for no one's entertainment.