Six months as a supermarket cashier: I discoverd social invisibility

We’re not robots, smile at the cashier : )

Texte en français

From customers who don’t give me the slightest glance to those who wave their bank card under my nose without bothering to express themselves, I discovered invisibility.

More than the uninspiring job of a cashier, it is this feeling of being taken for a machine that undermines self-esteem.

Mid-March 2020 in Berlin, I suddenly end up unemployed because of the pandemic. I take the first offer I can find: a part-time job in a rather upscale supermarket in a trendy district of Neukölln.

My first day falls at the end of those critical two weeks when everyone is rushing to the shelves. It is in this moment that we become aware of the harsh daily routine of the supermarket cashiers. I have no illusions about this gruelling job. But I hadn’t realized that social invisibility would be so prevalent, and how destructive it could be. I hadn’t realized what it feels like to be seen as a machine all day long.

Not a glance

According to my strictly personal experience, about a third of customers checkout without making eye contact with the person who serves them. They may grumble ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to me, but they don’t meet my gaze.

Of course you’ve got to be fast, put your items away and pay without any delay so as not to upset the person behind you. When the customer is finished, I’m the one who is busy, focused on the cash register to give change. As soon as his groceries are tidied up and his receipt is pocketed, the customer leaves right away. So there was a transaction and a service rendered, but we didn’t look each other in the eye.

Maybe we live in a society where this look makes us uncomfortable. I understand very well that there are days when we don’t want to see anyone and, yet, we have to go shopping. But when I am cashing out several dozen people between 5 and 8 p.m. and half of the customers ignore me, I can’t smile anymore either.

I have the very physical sensation of becoming a machine. When I repeatedly find myself smiling into the void because I can’t even be seen, it takes too much energy to make an effort to be kind to the next person.

Are there long-term effects on self-esteem?

Maybe I’m too sensitive and I shouldn’t be concerned about this recurring feeling of invisibility. I asked my colleagues and some, indeed, don’t care. They have been working in this supermarket for at least two years, often much longer. They tell me that they’ve got used to it, that it’s like that, that fortunately some customers are very friendly and it makes up for the others.

I imagine that they built a shell for themselves and inside they know who they are: people full of life, with their own ideas, their own emotions, who can not be reduced to just their job as a cashier. I tell myself that it is this shell that allows them to go home every night without feeling that their self-esteem is down in the dumps. When one does this job temporarily, I can believe that is the case. But does this shell last ten years, twenty years, a lifetime? Does this feeling of invisibility have long term effects on self-esteem?

Social recognition of cashiers during lock-down didn’t last

Because I started my job at the beginning of April, I didn’t know what the customers’ attitude was like before. I asked Nadine, a colleague who works full time and exclusively as a cashier. She tells me that a lot of people were very kind and grateful during the crisis. According to her, the invisibility quickly returned to the way it was before, or possibly even worse.

Wearing a mask and having a Plexiglas window between the customer and the checkout doesn’t help. These are obviously necessary protective measures, but, unfortunately, they further hinder communication by increasing the distance between the cashier and the customer.

Who deserves to be ignored by 30% of the people he/she serves during the day?

Cashiers are people that we see quite often. It could be every two or three days. Why do these people deserve less attention than, let’s say, the waiters at the bar or café that we only see once in a while?

I’m writing this article to say to all those who go through the checkout counter*: a smile, a look, is already acknowledging that you are looking at a human and not a robot. Until the cashiers are actually replaced by machines and can finally dedicate themselves to more rewarding tasks, smile at them!

*I’m only talking here about supermarket cashiers. But this observation and this call “smile at them” is obviously valid in all situations where this type of service is very depreciated.

Half time supermarket employee, half time data analyst student, french and based in Germany.