Is there something in the water that’s making people freak out on retail employees?

Maybe it’s not a zombie apocalypse for which we need to prepare, but an angry shopper-pocalypse. At least that’s what it’s felt like the last couple of days.

Last week I saw a customer becoming extremely irate at a cashier at a local Target. Perhaps this sort of thing wouldn’t have caught my attention normally, but this rather large woman was screaming down into the face of the much smaller cashier, who eventually left the checkout lane in tears.

While waiting for her contact lenses, a Costco optical employee told my wife the story of a customer completely freaking out on her over the weekend.

* An aside; It’s not in the Bible, but I’m pretty sure my lovely wife has the spiritual gift of making complete strangers feel so at ease that they end up sharing much of their story with her in a very short time. Amazing. 

Just yesterday, I was asking a Verizon employee a few questions when I noticed her glance over my shoulder a couple of times. There was another customer at the entrance losing it on another employee, ranting and gesticulating wildly.

Diagnosing the low-grade fever of anger seething beneath the surface of many people in our culture is above my pay grade, but I do see troubling connections between people freaking out at the local big box store and how we, as the Church, often handle conflict.

Rick Warren recently set forward a chain of events that played out as it has many times before (Kathy Khang has been a great voice in all of this; catch up on the particulars of what transpired here). Thankfully, this story ended in a sort of apology (for reals, one of the first things I learned in married life is that an authentic apology does not contain the word “if”).

I can’t read the minds of the three aforementioned aggrieved shoppers, but I wonder if they know what they look like from the outside when their faces become contorted in anger, seething red and rage for everyone to see. I know we’re all capable of forgetting ourselves, so I don’t want to judge them too harshly — in fact, I’m guessing that it wouldn’t even occur to them to consider what is happening outside of themselves in that moment.

And therein lies the problem for the Church.

Sure, others might look at someone who is hurt or offended and run down their checklist of dismissals:

  • Get over yourself. Don’t take yourself so seriously
  • Grow a thicker skin. Get a sense of humor.
  • I wasn’t offended by that, so what’s your problem?
  • Why are you looking for reasons to be offended? I’m so sick of the PC police.

But should this be the heart of those who proclaim Christ as King? Seriously, take a look (if you have the stomach) at the list of dismissals, attacks, and “you’re great; what’s wrong with those people?” in the comments of Rick Warren’s FB apology. Double yikes.

In Scripture, followers of Jesus don’t say, “You shouldn’t feel that way. What’s wrong with you?”

They humbly serve like Jesus, listen, seek to understand, and hope to win their hearts. At least that’s how I’m reading Philippians 2:1-11.

Even if we think someone’s concerns are ridiculous or unfounded, what benefit is there in waving them off with a sneer, questioning their very salvation, or attacking their character? Has such an approach ever changed someone’s mind?

Of course, the way of Jesus is much, much slower and more difficult than any of us would like. As James says:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

Listening is an act of love, as StoryCorps often beautifully reminds us.

If Jesus is our King, and He is redeeming us, then shouldn’t there be visible evidence that we will live, move, and have our being in profoundly different ways than what encounter out there?

What if we asked Jesus to crush that urge we have in us to respond with, “Well, that’s dumb” when we hear someone share their concerns with us. What if we listened with the Father’s heart?

Doesn’t look like much of a revolution but, then again, the Kingdom is sort of like that.

Listening — really listening — could be the unseen force that becomes tangible, visible evidence that another Kingdom is already here and is on its way.

.   .   .   .   .

Seriously, read this story from an Apple store employee (it’s the last one in this long post) and tell me that listening won’t change things: 

A manager scans the Genius Bar then approaches me. “Got something for you,” he says.

I exhale, leaving behind the comforting barrier of the Genius Bar for the open floor.

“See the lady that Dana is talking to?,” he says. “Her cat just died. So did her hard drive. You’re going to sit with her while we see what we can do. It might not be much, so prep her for that. You got this.”

He strides off to the opposite side of the store. To put out another fire, I presume.

All employees learn acronyms of steps to help empathize with customers. I can’t disclose them, as the Wall Street Journal already has, but they’re less important than the holistic goal. The gist is this: If you’ve never lost a cat, like this fragile woman Barbara just has, you can at least conjure a loss that would be as significant to you, so that you can relate. If you can illustrate to her that you get it, you’ll feel more and seem fully sympathetic.

However, since my mom never let me have a pet, I got nothing. I consider lying. I don’t want to lie. I wish I knew how the repair was going. I tell her I have lost hard drives before. I try to laugh bravely to her about semesters of research and libraries of mostly legal music evaporating. How it’s nothing like losing a companion, but how devastating it was to my freshman self.

Barbara is deflating on the designer stool right in front of me when my teammate brings out her laptop and, thank God, it actually boots up intact.

“It’s working,” I beam.

“Do you know how to check my pictures?”

“Sure,” I reply. “Right here in iPhoto.”

A grid of images of Barbara and a silver-haired man spring up. I wish I could un-see some of the images in customers’ photo libraries, but these are extraordinarily vanilla. Awkward-seated portraits in a garden, by some boats, at the beach, basic slice of life banality.

“That’s my husband.”

She’s crying with joy.

“He died last year… before I could print any of these images out. Thank you!”

My stomach drops. This, my manager didn’t know to tell me. I try hard not think of what it would have meant had we not gotten her computer back online.

I look up at the dozens of people cradling their aluminum babies. Tapping their feet, chewing their nails, licking their lips, they’re worried bad about something that matters to them. I wish Barbara the best of luck, really meaning it, and excuse myself. I unholster my iPod and call out the next customer’s name.

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