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Wednesday, November 29, 2017


     I was shopping at Trader Joe's this evening and as I finished putting my purchases on the counter, the cashier asked me in an oh so casual way how my day was going.   It took me aback.  I didn’t know how to answer.  He was approaching me like an old friend with good understanding of me, as if asking me how the whole scenario of US relocation was going.  But he had only known me for 30 seconds.
     As I sit at my computer, reflecting on this, the first frame that comes to mind is reverse culture shock.  I start to write from this perspective.  I start to contrast this experience in Trader Joe's to how I felt shopping in France, following a familiar storyline based around a simple binary between public warmth in the US and public coldness in France.
     On reflection, two thoughts emerge that complicate this story.  The first is that if I think back in more detail to my French shopping interactions, it is not a sense of rudeness that comes to mind (at least not in the majority of cases).  I actually remember how sweet the employees at Franprix were that I shopped at weekly in Grenoble.  No, they didn't ask me a lot of questions and get to know me personally, but they were certainly warm and welcoming to me.   It strikes me that they would not deign to intrude on my private life.  They would not assume familiarity with someone they have spent such a small time getting to know.  While it is certainly a more formal approach, it also leaves a lot of room for mutual respect, and a sense that one can navigate substantial personal difference within the frame of this respect. How do we deal with real difference if we start with this assumption that everyone is just like us?
     The second thought that occurs to me is that the way I felt taken aback by the employee at Trader Joes and other businesses in America is similar to the feeling I experienced with respect to the homeless people on the street in Grenoble.  They were sharp and impeccably friendly and polite and invasive of personal space.  These encounters actually really disturbed me because I felt like this person shouldn’t be on the street if they have the psychological accuity to peg me and my mood in 10 seconds and try to draw me in to a friendly conversation.  Why don’t they use these reserves of mental health and psychological strength to earn money in a more productive fashion? In contrast to many American beggars who often strike me as truly destitute and on the edge of health and sanity, I was not motivated to give money to many of the French beggars.
     In any case, I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from these reflections on public formality versus familiarity and similarities between customer service in the US and homeless beggars in France.  But it does remind me to pause and think for a moment before spouting off stereotypes.

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