Her name is Carol.
Carol was my nemesis, until recently.
Carol works at my local supermarket, and whenever I visited her checkout desk, she would ignore me.
When I smiled at her, she would look away.
When I tried to be nice to her, she would roll her eyes.
When I tried to make conversation with her, she would act as if I wasn’t speaking.
When I tried to chit-chat with her about the weather, or holidays, or anything, her replies would always be negative and rude. As I awkwardly packed my shopping into carrier bags (Carol doesn’t offer to help you pack – she told me it was against her beliefs, and I have to admit that I admired her honesty), she would make it obvious that she really wasn’t interested in talking to me.
But Carol didn’t know who she was messing with.
Carol didn’t know that unlike most other customers, I wasn’t going to avoid her checkout desk.
Carol didn’t know that I didn’t care if she was rude to me, because I was sure that one day, she would be nice.
Carol didn’t know that I found her bad manners amusing.
Carol didn’t know that I saw her grumpiness as a challenge; an opportunity to try and soften the frown on her face.
In today’s society, we live in a culture where we rush past people, avoid eye contact, and generally spend most of our time looking at a screen, instead of at each other’s faces. We like each other’s photos, but don’t phone for a chat. We send emojis, instead of sending cards. We give reviews, instead of hugs. Most of our conversations happen from behind a keyboard. Everything’s just so fast and impersonal, that hardly anyone stops to just say hello anymore.
I understand that this is the way the world is moving. I haven’t got much of an issue with it, really. I just choose not to get too involved with it all. I will, of course, like your photos. I will also write an article online. I’ll go on Facebook, Twitter, and have a selfie on Snapchat (I love the voice changers). But I won’t get so caught up in it all, that I forget to stop and take the time to try and chat to a person who is sitting right next to me in the waiting room, or standing behind me in a shopping queue, or just walking their dog in the same place as I walk mine.
I will always stop to say hello (not in a creepy way).
I will always make eye contact (again, not in a creepy way).
I will always smile at you (again, not in a creepy way).
And I will always acknowledge you.
But I have to be honest when I say that the more I do this, the less it’s reciprocated. And the less it’s reciprocated, the worse it feels. There’s only so much you can do, and only so long you can carry on that way, before it starts to get you down. And the last time I visited my local supermarket, it had started to do just that.
It had been a long day. I had been to work. My lesson plan had failed me that day, and when my students sensed weakness, they attacked. I’d messed up my time-sheets, so my wages wouldn’t go through properly at the end of the month. A random woman had asked me when my baby was due – I’m not pregnant. And then to top it all off, I tripped over my own foot and fell to my knees with impressive disgrace, in front of about fifty people. I’d had the flu bug the previous week, and I still hadn’t been able to shake it off. I was tired, snotty, cold, embarrassed and sooo ready to go home.
So, when I had to call into my local supermarket on the way home, I was reluctant to take my usual route to Carol’s till. I was fragile. I wasn’t sure if I could take her attitude today. But when I saw Carol’s empty checkout, something in my gut told me to go to her.
She looked up, and then looked straight back down as she started scanning the food items.
“Hi.” I smiled. “How are you, today?”
She didn’t answer.
I blew my cheeks out, exhausted.
What was the point? She didn’t talk to me any other day, so why would today be any different? The sooner I could get home, the better. I just wanted to get this day over and done with!
“My son moved out to start his new job.”
I stopped still.
I slowly lifted my eyes. “That’s nice for him,” I said.
“I suppose.” She shrugged her shoulders.
I could feel her sadness emanating across the checkout.
“Do you miss him?” I asked, warily.
She looked at me for a second, and then nodded her head. “Twenty-three years...” she replied. “I swear that 80% of being a mother is just cleaning up their crap!”
I smiled at her.
“You’d think I’d be happy to have some peace,” she said. “But it’s just so bloody quiet. It gets lonely, sometimes.”
“I can imagine,” I empathised. “Will he be coming home at all for Christmas?”
This seemed to perk her up. “Yes,” she replied. “He’ll be home for three days, so I’m doing a lovely Christmas dinner with all the trimmings!” She grinned widely at the thought of it, before asking, “Have you got any kids?”
“One daughter,” I replied. “She’s fifteen.”
Carol whistled theatrically. “I remember my boy at that age. Those hormones can be a nightmare!”
“Tell me about it!” I laughed.
“Still,” she said, gently. “Make the most of it. They don’t stay forever.”
We were both quiet as the beeping of the scanner filled the comfortable silence, and for the first time that day, my spirits lifted a little. My gut had sent me in Carol’s direction for a reason. It seemed that we both could do with a little kindness today.
“Not many people have been to my checkout desk today,” she said. “Can’t say I blame them – I’m not usually a fan of polite chit-chat. But in fairness, you always pop by with a smile on your face, and it really does make a difference, you know?”
And there we have it.
You never know when a little smile can make a difference to someone’s day.
You never know when a spare five minutes will boost somebody’s spirits.
That day had been awful until that point. And just as I was about to give up on Carol, that smile that I gave her – as weak as it was – finally did the trick! It shifted her mood. When I stopped to talk to her, it shifted her energy. The same way that my own mood was shifted when she smiled at me, and my own energy was shifted when she stopped to talk to me.
These things have the potential to cause a ripple effect of something subtle, but strong. Something peaceful and positive. So, the next time you find yourself presented with someone grumpy, give them a chance. Maybe they’re lonely, like Carol was. Or maybe they’re having a terrible day, like I was. Or maybe something else is going on in their life – something that’s not your responsibility to fix, but could still be soothed with a little kindness.
I chuckled to myself as I put my stuff into the carrier bags, and for the first time since I’d started visiting Carol’s checkout, she looked right at me and smiled as she asked, “Do you want some help with your packing, love?”
The difference a smile can make!