Forced Intimacy at the Supermarket

This morning, as I was stretching and listening to KPLU, I heard a commentary that caught my interest. Nancy Leson and Dick Stein were kvetching about how supermarkets are forcing their cashiers to be a little too intimate with us shoppers in an effort to bond with us. Specifically, Nancy and Dick complained that complete strangers address them by their first names and ask personal questions like, “what are your plans for the weekend?”

I stopped stretching for a moment and had to give this some thought as I realized this is an etiquette matter.

I don’t recall being called “Arden” by supermarket staff. I do know some of the cashiers make a point of looking at my receipt and saying, “thank you Ms. Clise”, although they sometimes mispronounce my name and it comes out sounding like “Cleese”. While I don’t like my name being mispronounced, I’m fine with them thanking me and addressing me by my last name. I know they only know my name by looking at the receipt, but I think it’s respectful to acknowledge me. I will say, however, if the store wants their cashiers to follow this practice, they must teach them the rules for pronunciation so names are not mangled.

As far as asking me about my plans for the weekend, yes, that question is a little too personal coming from a complete stranger. Why would they care and why do I care to tell them that I’m cleaning the house, running errands, going to a Zumba class, taking the dog to get bathed and sleeping in on Sunday? And what if I was going to be out of town that weekend? Would I dare tell them, and everyone standing near me, that my house will be unoccupied that weekend after the clerk looked at my driver’s license with my address on it to make sure I am old enough to buy that non-alcoholic beer?

But, here’s the deal. We as a society have gotten further and further away from making real connections with others. We send emails to the coworker sitting next to us, we talk on our cell phones as we are helped by clerks, we don’t welcome the new neighbor who just moved in. I think we need more connection, not less. If a supermarket cashier strikes up a conversation with me, even if it seems a bit personal, I’m happy to converse. I may not go into details about my weekend, but I will answer in a way that encourages conversation.

I also make a point of asking cashiers how their day is going. It feels awkward and rude to just stand there watching them scan my groceries without acknowledging and trying to engage them.

So maybe asking me “what my weekend plans are” and addressing me only after seeing my name on the receipt is forced intimacy, but it’s an effort to connect and that’s really what it’s all about.

What do you think? Do you object to cashiers trying to connect with you by asking questions like “what are your plans for the weekend?” Have you been addressed by your first name by a stranger? Do you mind having them acknowledge you by seeing your name on your receipt?

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Jean at The Delightful Repast on January 22, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    While I’m no fan of forced intimacy anywhere, I try to keep a supply of non-answers at the ready so that I can avoid feeling annoyed. I would never answer the question about my plans for the weekend, but I might non-answer it with something like “Maybe I’ll get caught up on a few things” or “Not sure yet. How about you?” (Actually, the real answer would probably be “I’m going to be cooking up these groceries!”)

  2. Arden Clise on January 24, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Those are great answers Jean. You’re right, there’s nothing saying we need to divulge what we are doing to the cashier, especially since they probably don’t really care anyway. Although I have to say, I have had a few nice, meaningful conversations with cashiers when I divulge enough information that we can then have a conversation about it. Such as that I plan to do a bike ride to Snohomish. They will usually then ask me more about that or share their biking stories.

    It’s all good.

  3. Carole on January 24, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Americans in particular seem to get annoyed by what a lot of other cultures take as nicities to get through the day. I think maybe it’s because as a culture we are rather self-absorbed and entitled.

    The clerk is not actually interested in what you are doing over the weekend, they’re just trying to make conversation. It’s de riguer in France if you are shopping. You always enter a store and there is an exchange of 2 or 3 rounds of “hi” “how are you” “the weather is wonderful/challenging today”, before you get down to the business of “how can I help you” or “what looks good today”. It’s the same scenario as “hi, how are you?”. The question is NOT an invitation to delve into details about health issues or money problems. Some version of “I’m fine, thank you” is really the only expected answer.

    There are a whole host of responses to “what are you doing this weekend”, all really just variations of what Jean mentioned above.
    “Not much. How about you?”
    “Just running errands”
    “A birthday celebration with family” (which might elicit more questions, so be careful!)
    But appending any answer with “how about you?” is sure to deflect the conversation back to the person who started it.

    In this day and age of un-connectedness, too much TV, and cell-hone-itis, I am perplexed as to why someone would be annoyed when getting a question from a stranger that is in no way intended to be personal, merely a way to reach out, be less automated, and to try to connect with people you may meet throughout the day.

  4. Arden Clise on January 24, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Well said Carole. I agree. I do think it’s nicer than having them ignore you. We can choose how much we want to share with strangers.

  5. Evil1 on April 21, 2011 at 9:34 am

    You people have it all and are totally unthankful. In my country cashiers look like zombies and throw stuff on the table in disgust, they can’t wait to get the hell out of there. And yet I don’t judge them, even if sometimes they really are rude, because I know how low their pay is and how the system doesn’t help them. You have all the respect in your society and you still act like pampered paranoid children. How can you feel offended by such things? They try to be nice and you behave as if they want to cut your throats or something. Jesus. I think you’re the ones that are rude to the cashiers. They don’t force you to do anything. It’s even their JOB to be nice. Stop thinking about yourselves like you’re the center of the universe. You aren’t. You’re the same meat and bone everybody else is.
    And if this offends you, then I’m sorry for wasting my time writing something of such “forced intimacy”…

  6. Arden Clise on April 21, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Thank you for sharing your comments Evil1. I’m curious to know what country you’re from. If you read the post closely and the comments I think you’ll see we all agree that it’s nice the cashier’s make small talk and are pleasant.

    Have a nice day.

  7. Michael on November 22, 2019 at 7:39 am

    Some time in the near future automation will remove the necessity for humans to behave like machines or computers, and then the transactional interactions will be a thing of the past. I can’t wait for the world of human interaction and intimacy with substance (and the free time to do it!).

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