As is the style at this time of year, I’ve been shopping a lot recently. You see all kinds of behaviour: some, you choose to ignore, but some sticks with you for reasons that are eventually revealed.
Like so many others, I took advantage of the Open House our downtown merchants recently held. The day felt festive thanks to the falling snow and the cheerful attitudes of our shopkeepers. Walking a few blocks and finding almost all you need — without circling for parking, elbowing for personal space, or fighting for items — is such a revelation that the discounts just seem like icing on the cake.
But — and I don’t mean this as a detriment to our merchants — it’s easy to be nice to people you know. It’s the never-ending stream of strangers that surely saps salespeople of their energy. And I couldn’t imagine a more challenging environment to sell items in than at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto, where individual artisans sell their wares to thousands of people daily, for five or 10 days straight. Not everyone can be as energetic as the Pook Toque guys, or as engaging as Peter Allan Rice (to name two local examples), you have to make an effort — and the ones sitting in their (unsurprisingly) empty booths with their arms crossed certainly weren’t.
Even if their arms aren’t physically crossed, there are salespeople who have that closed-off air about them, such as the salesperson at the high-end store in Toronto who confrontationally told me to “calm down” so I could “properly” smell the perfume she was proffering. Or the disenchanted staff at the Port Huron big box stores, who already seemed to be hardening their hearts against shoppers in anticipation of Black Friday madness.
Equally off-putting, however, are the people who put an overwhelming and obnoxious air of friendliness in an effort to win over your wallet. I’m thinking of the preternaturally perky waitress at the chain restaurant my girlfriend and I had lunch at in Port Huron. You know the type: They have a pasted-on smile, and everything is ABSOLUTLEY TERRIFIC or NO PROBLEM. Similarly, there are the salespeople who hover and hound you in that same preternaturally perturbing tone despite the claim that you’re just browsing.
Working in the service industry — and especially in retail — is hard. For many, these jobs are not the employee’s job of choice, but rather, circumstance. There’s little downtime during shifts, and staff are on their feet for hours at a time, and must maintain a friendly persona to customers that can be rude, rushed or stressed… even when it’s not two weeks until Christmas.
You can’t please all people, nor do all people want to be pleased. But everyone can remember one thing: We’re all human. Shopping locally is effortless because customers and sales staff aren’t just that; they’re friends and family. The respect is built-in. But when dealing with strangers, it’s easier to let the respect slide.
But the need for niceness almost seems to matter more in these cases. A genuine, understanding smile or universal joke can warm the weariest heart or mellow the most frenzied spirits, regardless of which side of the counter you’re on.
During that trip to Toronto, we were forced to take the streetcar at the start of rush hour. The car was packed, and we were soon delayed by construction — specifically, a Bobcat loader on the tracks. Our driver apologized for the delay over the speaker system then he started telling a story about an encounter with a paws-and-claws bobcat in his youth.
People clearly ignored him at first, but soon laughter started breaking out at his tale, and some of the car’s collective stress dissipated. The delay didn’t feel like a delay at all, and when we reached the end of the line, every single person said thank-you to the driver.
Patience, understanding and kindness are keys to comfort and joy this season. Practicing these virtues, no matter how hard it seems at first, is ultimately a better bargain than anything you’ll bring home in a shopping bag.
There was a booth at the One of a Kind Show featuring canned smoked salmon, but it’s also available in grocery freezers. Smoked foods always seem like a treat, and this easy dip is a real crowd-pleaser.
Smoked Salmon Pate
(adapted from nigella.com)
7 oz. smoked salmon
¾ cup cream cheese
½ cup plain yogurt
Juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp. fresh chives
1 tbsp. fresh dill
1 tbsp. fresh parsley
Ground black pepper to taste
Put all ingredients into a food processor (break up the salmon a bit first) and blend until you have a coarse paste to your liking. Serve with any plain cracker, melba toast or fresh bread.