This morning, a woman complimented me on my necklace. “It’s beautiful,” she said, staring at it as I rang up her groceries. “Can I ask what meaning it has for you?”
And I, feeling put on the spot and a little embarrassed, rattled off the research I’d done, about the history of the Hamsa and all the cultures it serves (“but I was raised Catholic,” I said, noticing the crystal cross around her own neck and her slight recoil at my mention of the Middle East, Judaism, and Islam), about how it’s used for protection, and how the spiral represents evolution and change.
“Oh, okay. I was just wondering,” she said as she took her bag and headed for the door.
This generalized explanation of symbol meanings was not what this woman wanted to hear. What she had asked was what meaning it had for me. She wanted to hear, maybe not about the project itself, but that the hand is a symbol of personal healing, and that the beads were lovingly hand-strung by my sister, the person I most want to emulate, in between breast-feedings. But I did not tell her any of these things, because I have trained myself, over the last two years, to act like a happy little robot in front of my customers.
In my first employee review post-miscarriage, I wasn’t reprimanded for leaving the sales floor to cry, or for running away from pregnant customers, or for occasionally being rude to my one pregnant coworker, or even for the night that I flipped out and screamed at a few non-pregnant coworkers for no good reason other than that I was emotionally wrecked and also had the flu.
No, what they told me was, “Don’t talk about your personal life with the customers.”
I remember actually balking at this. “I didn’t!” I insisted, finally conceding that I might have talked about my personal life with my coworkers, in situations where the customers could overhear.
“Okay, well, just remember,” my manager told me in a weird, sort of jovial tone, “People want to leave here feeling good about their shopping experience. You can talk about the food, or the weather, or ask them how their day is going, but they don’t want to know about your personal problems.”
I walked out of the review feeling sort of violated, like I’d been accused of something I hadn’t done, but also like I’d just been told to siphon off a portion of my humanity. Depressing as it was, this miscarriage was my reality, and it had just been declared unfit for conversation. As though I wasn’t ashamed of my life enough already.
I realized later that I actually had talked about my personal life with some customers during that time; I can remember two instances. The first was a woman, probably in her 60s, who asked how I was doing, and wasn’t fooled by my, “I’m okay.”
“Just okay?” she asked. “What’s going on?”
So I told her – it was during that waiting period, maybe between ultrasounds two and three – and she asked if she could pray for me. Which she then did. Out loud. As I bagged her groceries. I think it was more uncomfortable for me than it was for her.
The second time I talked to a customer about my personal life was after my miscarriage, but before I’d realized how deeply it had affected me.
This guy, about my age, came through my line with a few things, and asked whether we had a specific kind of flatbread cracker. I asked a coworker to go look, and he came back with the wrong one (multiseed instead of sesame seed, I think).
My customer shook his head. “My girlfriend is pregnant,” he said, “and she sent me specifically to get the sesame one.”
“That excuse isn’t going to work on me,” I shot back. “You’re talking to the girl who just had a miscarriage.” I think I thought I was making a joke.
I don’t remember what happened with that guy and his crackers (I think we found them eventually), but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had called the next day and told my managers about what I’d said. He certainly had the right to; that comment is not one I’m proud of, and the worst part is that I didn’t even realize how it must have sounded at the time.
So I get it, that sometimes the public doesn’t need to hear the nitty-gritty details of my darkest life. But I think when a customer genuinely asks – when she wants to pray for me, or know what personal meaning I have attached to my necklace – it’s almost a disservice not to disclose. And we’re underestimating the intelligence of our customers if we think they really believe that we’re happy little robots all the time.