The Walmart Cashier and Cell Phone (Dis)Courtesy

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…

7 thoughts on “The Walmart Cashier and Cell Phone (Dis)Courtesy

  1. On a related note, people in computer labs on BYU campus seem to have the same issue. They take a call, talk loudly, and generally distract the people around them! Maybe I have less focus than most people, or maybe other people only use the computers for Facebook rather than school work, but when I’m in a flow on schoolwork I always get distracted when someone within 10 feet of me takes a cell phone call. I’ve started looking up at them. It doesn’t seem to matter how long you stair, though, they never acknowledge your presence, or the fact that you’re staring at them. And the never try to whisper. I suppose computer labs in the library don’t follow the same rules as the rest of the library. The really interesting thing is that even though it bothers me, I caught myself doing it the other day…

  2. Amen. The first thing that came to mind was Wall-e and all the people on the space ship who are so absorbed in their virtual space that they never interact outside of it. Scary, and sadly more and more true for our society.

  3. This is a great post. I love the image of the self-absorbed cell phone user as a sleepwalker. I’ve always found it ironic that for many people, someone calling over the phone seems to have a higher priority than someone interacting in person.

    This first bothered me when I would visit some place of business and I would have to wait while the person at the desk took a phone call from another customer or client. Sure, it’s a business call, and that’s OK, but I always figured that if somebody took the time to drive over, they ought to have a higher priority than somebody who just picked up a telephone.

    I suppose this happens because the ringing of the phone is more urgent than somebody waiting in person at the desk–the phone only rings for so long before the caller is gone, while the customer at the desk will probably not walk out of the store. Nonetheless, I’ve always appreciated it when a clerk (or whoever was responsible for helping me) would pick up the ringing phone and just ask the caller to wait on hold for a moment while they finished their transaction with me.

    I think the same is true with cell phones–people with whom you are interacting in your personal space deserve some consideration over the people on the phone (or through texting or IM), even if these real and immediate people aren’t your family or friends. Even though, in the USA, the “customer is always right,” it seems that the customer ought to at least return the courtesy of the cashier by putting their virtual conversant “on hold” at least for a moment.

    I guess I probably don’t have as many high-priority cell phone callers as other people probably do, but I heartily agree with you. I’m constantly worried about becoming “that annoying guy with the (bluetooth headset|cell phone to his head) (on the bus|in the store|walking down the street|hanging out with his friends).”

  4. You couldn’t have worded it any better. I was a Customer Service Associate at Circuit City this past year (yep, we are going out of business) and I couldn’t stand cell phone entranced customers. They got so caught up in their conversations that I have to remind them to pay/swipe their cards (CSAs ran customer service and the registers). Of course, they don’t hear me the first time, so I have to say it again.. maybe two more times.

    And then there were the Bluetooth people who sound like they’re taking the time to show some courtesy by starting a conversation, but they’re really not.

    Customer: Heyy! How are you?
    Me: I’m good, thanks! How about you?
    Customer: Yeah, I’m just doing some shopping at Circuit City. Then I need to go to Best Buy and see if they have the same thing for a better price, then return it if I do find one. Are you coming over to see the game? Party!!!!!
    Me: Oh. *scans box*

    The whole thing is just obnoxious.

  5. I love it when people order fast food while on a cell phone and are either annoyed, or simply ignore the cashier’s attempts to clarify the order. Granted, most of the questions are your standard “want fries with that?” also stated as “you want the sandwich or the combo?” (on a side note, is a burger really considered a sandwich? what about a hot dog? is that REALLY a sandwich?) Anyways, the whole “how dare you bother me while I am on my phone” mentality is pretty amazing, especially considering who initiated the fast food transaction.

    Perhaps even more annoying is standing behind someone in a line at Subway who is ordering a sandwich for the person on the other end of the cell phone. Inevitably, the remote person needs to have every possible topping repeated to them numerous times before settling on “the works.”

  6. I’ve worked in the pharmacy for years, though we do not have a policy stating this, we as all employees refuse to give any service to any one customer who has their cell phones up to their ear. Some people have a problem with this refusal on our side, but we do kindly explain that we’ve had customers coming back asking something that we’ve already informed them about. There has been mistakes due to this. They say “yes” to everything and come back furious about some mistake that could’ve been avoided “if” they weren’t on their cell phones.
    And the little problems are, holding up the line, or having to repeat yourself ten times.

  7. I’m a meat manager in Nebraska and I refuses customers that come up to the service case on their cell phones. I used to keep waiting for them to finish their conversation, but now a days not a chance. A few of them holler at me and i tell them I’ll help them when they’re ready. That’s how we roll.


    We like to drink and piss rude customers off. It’s not good business but that’s how it should be and that’s how we do it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *