Per a recent CNN blog: In response to customer complaints, Whole Foods is enforcing an English only policy during work time on employees, in – of all places – 47% Hispanic New Mexico.

Whole Foods is known for being staunchly anti-union, so this is no surprise, but before going all politically correct regarding the language issue, is it possible that both sides of this “debate” are missing an important point?

I get why employees want to be able to speak the language they are most comfortable in to each other, and why most Spanish-speaking people are resentful of “English only” anything — especially in a place like New Mexico where many residents are quite proud of their heritage.

I understand why customers aren’t comfortable when employees are speaking in a language they don’t know. Their reasons include statements like: “My grandparents came to this country and they had to learn English.” That may not be particularly rational, or even historically correct – said grandparents may have come from an English speaking country, or they may never have actually learned enough English to get by without help. There might even be an underlying prejudice, and there’s a limit to “the customer is always right.” Sometimes the customer may ask for something that clearly is not right, as in “Fire the girl with the headscarf or I won’t come back.” Assuming the headscarf, and not job performance, prompted the complaint, the correct answer from management would be, “We’ll miss your business.”

But the “English only” crowd may have other reasons besides “English is the official language of these United States” which is not a true statement no matter how often it’s said. They may feel like people are talking about them when they can’t understand the words. They may also feel this way when they can. In both cases, it’s unlikely, although according to some of the comments in reply to the CNN piece, a few stealth Spanish-speakers have experienced being talked about when employees thought they couldn’t understand.

There’s another reason besides paranoia, prejudice and ignorance, why you might not want the cashier and the bagger to be having an animated conversation in Spanish while checking out your groceries. It’s the same reason you would not want them to be having a conversation with each other, in any language, including the ones you understand, while checking out your groceries. It’s called, common courtesy, and it’s become very uncommon in many customer service jobs.

Once upon a time, and still in other parts of the world, it would be considered rude to be having a conversation right in front of someone while acting as though the person does not exist. This would be especially true if the person were a customer and you were supposed to be doing your job. You know where I can’t imagine the cashier and the bagger having a conversation and not including me? Guatemala, that’s where. Guatemalans are absurdly polite people and generally when you go into a store you will be expected to participate in all manner of conversation. If you can’t speak the language, it doesn’t matter. They’ll talk to you anyway and you will do your best to reply. (This is especially true if you are looking for over-the-counter medications at a farmacia where you will be quizzed on your condition and hear stories about various relatives of the clerk or proprietor who had the same problem.) We could all learn something from our neighbors.

Meantime, here in NYC,the cashiers and baggers will sometimes attempt to talk to customers, but because we are not familiar with this concept and have come to expect all servers to be surly, they may not get much back, and so they sometimes talk to each other and forget we are there. Usually, these conversations happen in Spanish. I am a stealth-Spanish speaker and have never heard them talking about me. Sometimes it’s work related. More often it’s trivial, “How late are you working?” “I am so tired today.” “How’s the puppy? Is he still having accidents in the house?”

There have been times when I have interrupted to add my own two cents. This is often greeted by shock. I’m not sure if the looks of astonishment happen because they are surprised I speak Spanish, or if they are simply surprised that customers speak at all (especially the gringo-looking ones).

In any case, I’m convinced that if service employees were more engaged with those they are supposed to be serving, and less engaged with each other or texting or speaking on the phone, then there would be fewer complaints about what language they use to ask for a price check, or what language they use to speak to non-English speaking customers, or even to each other during “down” time or when they are engaged in activities like stocking shelves where they aren’t directly dealing with a customer.

This will be a radical departure that will require training and practice. Employees may be frustrated when their initial attempts to say, “Good morning. How are you today?” are rebuffed, which is especially likely in parts of the northeastern United States. But they’ll learn not to take it personally. Customers too, may be disconcerted, convinced something is up although after a while, they might come around and learn to reply, reciprocate with their own questions, even begin to acknowledge the full humanity of those they don’t normally even notice. Undoubtedly, there will still be a few gripers complaining because a cashier had the audacity to think they were Spanish-speaking and started asking them about the weather in the “wrong” language, but overall there would be fewer complaints.

Courtesy is universal.

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3 Comments on Courtesy — It Works!

  1. Sarah Barnett says:

    Rock on with your bad self. Great blog from a fellow New Yorker. Sarah B.

  2. Craig says:

    Hubby here
    I hate to somewhat disagree, but often the reason for surly customer service in NY – and especially Manhattan is the surly, obnoxious, “Leona Helmsly-esque” attitude of the masters of the universe who work in Manhattan. You know, the ones jabbering on cellphones while paying for merchandise, not even acknowledging the clerk, or the ones complaining about poor selection to the stock clerk who can do squat about it. I know the customer is always right and customers are in effect paying service staff’s salaries, but still courtesy is a two-way street.

    • Marion says:

      There’s no disagreement on that. That’s why I mentioned that it would take some determination on the part of employees, and that the end result just might be that some of the masters of the universe may “even begin to acknowledge the full humanity of those they don’t normally even notice.”

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