Tonight I made a quick stop at the local Walmart on my way home from campus. Standing in line with my items I noticed the lady in front me in one of those self-absorbed cell phone trances. You know the trance. You’re in the zone, speaking too loudly, oblivious to anything around you, sharing your personal conversation with a host of perfect strangers, and yet sleep-walking through the physical world in which your oblivious body moves.
As I watched with interest, I saw the Walmart cashier looking at the cell phone trance lady with an amused but detached look, as if daring the cell phone trance lady to acknowledge the Walmart cashier’s humanity. I also noticed that the cell phone trance lady never once made eye contact with the Walmart cashier or exchanged a single word of verbal communication. The cell phone trance lady took four tries to get her PIN correct (she seemed distracted somehow) and then scuttled off, sharing her animated conversation with all in the path of her oblivious sleepwalking.
As the cell phone trance lady vacated the space in front of me, I turned to the Walmart cashier and somewhat enthusiastically said, “How are you this evening?” She was gently jolted out of her detached revery, and returned my warm greeting. I then told the Walmart cashier that I was a university professor with a research interest in the interplay between technology and society and asked her two questions: 1) How frequently does a cell phone trance person (such as we had just witnessed) come through the line? 2) How does it make you feel?
In answer to the first question, she guessed that about 10% of all the people that came through her check-out line in a given day were in a cell phone trance and failed to make eye contact or exchange a single word with her. 10% is not a huge number per se, but the cultural implications of 1-in-10 people in a check-out line at Walmart failing to simply acknowledge the humanity of the person taking their money is staggering. The Walmart cashier commented, “I could charge these people double and they’d never even notice.”
In answer to the second question, she waxed a bit more reflective and said with some emotion, “It’s VERY rude. What are people thinking?!” Then a pause. She continued with some resignation, “It’s VERY VERY rude.” She was being honest and a bit tender in her communication at this point. I could tell that she hadn’t intended to get a little emotional, but I could see it welling just beneath the surface. The sleepwalking cell phone trance people will never notice their impact on the Walmart cashier and others around them because they can’t be bothered to connect even for a minute while performing the transaction at the cash register.
Dr. K sez: If you are talking on a cell phone in a store, when you approach the cashier, either terminate your call or tell the person on the other end that you need to interrupt the conversation for a minute or two. Then pull the phone away from your head and interact with the cashier. It’ll only take a couple minutes. Repeat after me… “People in my physical space are as important as people in my virtual space.” Smile. Say, “Thank you.” The Walmart cashier is a real person, worthy of your validation. Baby steps…