As you would expect, simple questions yield simple, if not recycled, answers. But ask the same question often enough and you are bound to find departures from this norm.
This question is, of course, the greeting ‘How are you?’
A month into my checkout job, I realised that some people don’t expect a reply when they ask ‘How are you?’ The statement is turned not so much into a rhetorical one, but into something that just rolls off their tongue after having received the correct cue. I learned this after repeated incidents in which I gave the standard ‘Not bad, how are you?’ and either A) Didn’t receive a reply or B) Got a startled look because they hadn’t anticipated a response.
That aside, I generally don’t like to ask how people are unless they look willing to respond, and even then I hesitate to do so because in 90% of cases a ‘Hi, how are you’ is followed by an ‘I’m well, and you?’ followed by a ‘Good, thank you’, and all this gets to be a bit of a bore.
Lately, though, more people have been giving original, revealing responses. A few days ago I served a group of people who I thought might be Swedish (they were Norweign). One member of the group seemed open to conversation so I asked how they were.
A pause. ‘Hmm, I don’t know,’ he replied.
‘Well, at least you’re honest,’ I said, smiling.
A thoughtful chin rub: ‘I will have to give the question some thought.’
It was either the case that they hadn’t thought more on the question during the transaction or that the answer was so staggeringly complex that their brain was still working on it, but by the time they left the man hadn’t decided how he was feeling that day.
Today I received a much more detailed and unexpected reply. In between customers, I had seen a short, scrawny fellow with sores on his face walk into the store. Later, I found him in the queue for my checkout, purchasing only two items. He asked how I was, and I told him that I was alright and returned the question. Out came the answer:
‘You see, I went to this party on the weekend and I ended up crashing [read: falling asleep] there. I slept on a couple of pillows that I thought looked okay but when I woke up my face was covered in pimples,’ he said, gesturing to his face.
The pimples that he mentioned weren’t so much pimples now but open wounds. Spots of dark dried blood wallpapered his cheeks and chin, and you could tell that they weren’t going to go away in a hurry.
I gave him a sympathetic look. ‘Geez, what was on those pillows?’
‘I’m not sure… I mean, I checked them and they looked clean, but it turned out that they hadn’t been washed for like, a couple of months. I also had this white thing on my forehead when I woke up…’
I fished for another sympathetic response. I failed to conjure up a more compassionate one and finally murmured, ‘That’s too bad…’
Mentally, I was still wondering why he was telling me all this. It was interesting to know and nice to be engaged in a conversation, but it didn’t really bother me whether his spots had arisen from natural causes or through misadventure. As though he had read my mind, he continued:
‘But yeah, I thought I would explain to you why my face looks like this because I’m embarrassed to be seen by someone as gorgeous as you looking like this.’
Averting my eyes in a kind of automated modesty, I thanked him. I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m no contender for Miss Australia. That I get these sorts of remarks from time to time arises more from my attentiveness to customers and friendliness, I think, than any objective appearance of abject beauty. Put simply: my perky checkout smile and attitude appeals to some people I happen to serve.
We moved on from talking about his face and what he thinks of mine to other, fairly standard, topics.
When the spotted-faced boy had left, I began to apologise to the next customer, an elderly woman with faded, untamed hair and full cheeks, but she didn’t seem to mind the delay in serving her. Instead, she delighted in the previous goings-on.
‘That boy turned back to look at you a couple of times to see if you were looking at him,’ she tittered, with all the enthusiasm and manner of a schoolgirl gossiping with friends.
My mouth twisted into a wry smile. ‘Is that so?’ I said, feeling no desire to quash her excitement.
‘Yes. He seemed like he was propositioning you before.’
I laughed. ‘Well, that’s nice, but I already have a boyfriend.’
‘Ah yes, but you can’t blame the boy for trying.’
I added, thinking of this blog, ‘I don’t think I’ll tell Boyfriend about this incident. He wouldn’t be pleased to hear of it.’
The woman was confused. ‘Why not? Listen, I’ll tell you something about men,’ she said, leaning in conspiratorially.
I nodded and gave the impression of attentiveness, while at the same time scanning and bagging her items.
‘With men,’ she continued, ‘They’re always thrilled when someone else shows a desire for what they have. It makes them proud to be the one who has it.’
I “Mmm”ed in agreement, though I wasn’t entirely sure that her theory applied to Boyfriend (or to me, for that matter), and told her that I might tell Boyfriend after all.
I may not need to tell Boyfriend because he’ll probably read about it here. In which case, if he’s gotten up to these lines he’ll be reading about me saying that he’s reading this. As for the standard checkout greeting script, I haven’t received an ‘I feel like crap’ in reply to a ‘How are you?’ yet, but I am holding out for that day.