Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinadd/

It was quiet in Sainsbury’s this morning, so I paid for my stuff at a checkout.

The lady at the till asked me how I was, and so we chatted briefly. She’d had a very quiet Easter. Hadn’t left the house in four days. Assuming she eventually left home to return to work, if a machine was to take her job in the future, what would have then made her leave her house? And, if she hadn’t got anyone at home to talk to, with whom would her next conversation have been? Finally, if a machine had been doing her job, who would I have spoken to this morning?

I’ve noticed of late, in the Sainsbury’s close to work, that people behind checkouts seem to more often engage in conversation than they used to.

Maybe it’s an age thing? Day time staff are often somewhat older than the younger people who man tills at the weekend when I shop, and by and large, they’re not as chatty — although anecdotally I seem to think they open up conversations more than they used to. Why is this? Maybe people talk to me more now I am getting older?

A few weeks ago I took the kids to McDonalds. We had to place our whole order on a touchscreen, and then in end the food was brought out to the zone we were sitting in. Other than saying thank you to the girl who gave us the tray, we didn’t need to talk further. One thing I used to admire about McDonalds (even though there are many things I hate) is how they always aimed to instil some level of customer care into their crew, rewarding them with little stars on their badges. Partly, because for the kids who did these jobs on a part-time basis while studying, it gave them some great grounding in how to treat people in general in a sales or service environment. Now those jobs are gone, where do kids learn that? If those jobs don’t exist, do they even need to? (Yes, definitely, but the issue is then the diminishing number of contexts in which they’ll use those skills.)

I don’t want to live in a world where people don’t learn these skills. Neither should I feel so time poor that I can’t take a minute to talk to someone at a checkout. And, all the while there are people at checkouts to talk to, I should value these opportunities.

Perhaps that’s why checkout staff are engaging in conversations more now than they used to? Of course, some fucking MBA or BA will have figured that for every x seconds a staff member wastes being civil costs that till the opportunity of making £y extra cash. But for the people doing these jobs, maybe being able to use these soft skills is all they’ve got left to help maintain the value of having people in those roles. For, when we trade convenience with social interaction, we lose something greater in terms of our humanity. Are we really that busy that we can’t take the time to talk to people more?

I suggest we all start talking more. If it doesn’t halt the descent into a fully automated existence, we’ll at least have some slightly more recent living memories of when we engaged with people for no other reason than having the opportunity to extend some pleasantries. And we shouldn’t just apply that to people we trade with or who provide us a service; Neighbours; the homeless; those in general at large in our communities. And we should get back into that habit pretty fucking sharpish too — because automation is killing the most obvious opportunity we have to do this.

Dad and Husband who loves the great outdoors. Own @miggle, digital product management consultancy.

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