If there’s one thing customer service jobs drill into you, it’s this: Always say, “Hello.” At this point, having been in customer service jobs for nearly 40 years, I’ve said, “Hello,” or some variation thereof, to thousands upon thousands of people. And of all those people, one in particular stands out in my memory.
I was 28, maybe 29, years old, working in a big box warehouse-type store, and as I walked down the aisle, I greeted an elderly gentleman, whom I’d say was in his 70s. He said ‘hello,’ back, and I proceeded to ask him if he needed a hand/what I could help him with/what he was looking for – I don’t remember exactly how I worded it. He told me that he was there with his son and his family, and they’d gone on ahead of him, so I replied that if any of them needed any help, just to grab ahold of someone wearing the same kind of uniform I had on, and we’d take care of them.
Y’know, a bog-standard customer interaction.
When I finished speaking, he visibly hesitated and then asked, “Do you know me?”
I began to panic inside, as I’m terrible with both faces and names, and was afraid I was about to insult him. With great care I said, “Nnnoooo, I don’t think so. Um. How come?”
“You said ‘hello’ to me.”
It was one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever heard. It was so clear he’d become used to being invisible.
To this day, I have no idea what came over me, but I opened my mouth, and the words just kind of fell out. “Oh, I say ‘hello’ to all the good-looking men who come into the store.”
His face! I will never forget that face! It simply transformed. He smiled, and the lines around his eyes and mouth crinkled, and blushed. His posture changed, too, subtly but noticeably, his shoulders and back straightening a bit while his arms relaxed, and he ducked his head and mumbled something I couldn’t make out. He was shy and pleased and embarrassed all at the same time, and he carried his age differently, as if at that moment, it wasn’t a burden.
And all because someone acknowledged him as a human being, and paid him a compliment.
I wished him a good day and continued on, having gone from feeling like my heart was breaking to my heart was overfull in the space of time it took him to smile that smile. I also realized I’d learned what has proven to be one of the most valuable lessons I ever have, making me aware of the way society marginalizes the elderly and making me strive not to do the same.
Since then, I have gently flirted with more elderly customers than I can count, and the reactions have always been positive. From smiles and blushes, to hugs and kissing the back of my hand, to straight-up thank yous, the sad reality is that, for many of them, being treated as a full human being, not just an old one, is a rarity.
Of course, these days, the age gap isn’t nearly as big as it used to be – it’s more like 20 years instead of 40 – but I don’t care. I’m going to keep doing it. And I hope that one day, when I’m the age that gentleman was, some young’un makes my face light up the same way.