The “Hello” Files: Adventures in Workplace Socialization

It is a truth universally acknowledged that saying “hello,” to one’s co-workers at least once daily is a matter of common courtesy. It is also understood that upon seeing such co-workers in the hallways, parking lots etc. throughout the day, you must also similarly acknowledge them with a smile, nod, or verbal greeting. These are the facts or work life and they are undisputed.

But, when you work in a three story department store, these rules become a bit more…complicated. My store probably has over a hundred employees on payroll. At any given time, only about thirty to fifty are in the store. So, there is a bit of a modified greeting code of etiquette, relying on common sense social rules. Or so I thought.

This unspoken standard seems to have been lost on “R” our Loss Prevention guy. In perhaps, his early forties, R is an intimidating fellow, as all Loss Prevention guys should be. He’s tall and lanky with a swarthy complexion. (I can’t place his ethnicity but it’s not the usual Hispanic). He has a thick and bushy mustache, and dark hair feathered a la 1975. In a red windbreaker boldly declaring, “SECURITY,” he stoically walks the aisles, hands clasped behind his back, radio ever at his side, never a smile. Everyone is suspect, everyone a criminal…as every good LP guy should think. Watching. Waiting. Present.

When I first saw him, I was intimidated. The store’s ceilings are covered in cameras, and yes, they do work, and yes, they do watch them.

So, if an unassuming employee should decide to think for themselves, and do the best for the customer in a way that Mr. Eye in the Sky doesn’t understand from his room of monitors, well, then, it’s the inquisition chair for you. I had been in that hot seat once before, many years ago, and was less than enthused about ever repeating the experience. Once was quite enough for a lifetime, thank you.

Plus, in another store I had worked in, we were told not to speak to LP. They could be undercover tracking someone, or you could distract them from seeing something.

So, all in all, my objective was to lay low and stay off of R’s radar.  My plan worked…or backfired whatever way you want to look at it.

One day, about four months into the job, I was having a slow morning working in young menswear. The most exciting thing that had happened all morning was I kept seeing someone in my peripheral, and turned only to find a life size ad of P Diddy unabashedly staring me down. Creepy. Cardboard Diddy, stop checking me out.

I thought about doing a blog post about Cardboard Diddy. But since those three sentences were all I had, I figured maybe a Facebook status. Hmmm….I wandered around young menswear, straightening the already straightened Hurley shirts and rehanging a pair of Quicksilver jeans.

Then I noticed R, standing by the main store doors. His lips were pressed into a hard thin line, and he stood hands clasped behind his back, stoically watching. Scanning. For something. For everything.

I smiled. The first non-cardboard person I had seen my entire shift.

“Hey,” I said.

R turned to look at me, his face suddenly brimming with anger.

“After all these months and months,” he shot at me. “All through Thanksgiving, Christmas you worked, and you FINALLY say hello?!”

His voice dripped with sarcasm and resentment. I froze, and my mouth dropped. My stomach turned to ice. I searched his face for some clue that he was joking. But there was nothing. He shook his head and whipped his face around. No eye contact. Wow. This guy was seriously offended.

“I’m so sorry,” I gushed when I could find my tongue over the shock.

He refused to look at me, and snorted as if my meager apology were too little too late.

I stumbled back to Cardboard Diddy and mulled the last four months. Had I been unkind to this guy? Had I done him wrong? No I hadn’t talked to him. But it wasn’t personal. Or was it? Did I hold some sort of unrealized judgment against the guy? His unapproachable manner did ward me off and I don’t think I had ever seen him smile. But, he had never tried to talk to me.

Finally, after about twenty minutes of mulling over how someone could be so angry over such a small slight, I knew I had to fix it. These things frequently escalate and can be a cancer to your job. I had to work this out before it got any worse.

I hate confrontation. I seriously hate confrontation. I hate confrontation the way some people hate going to the dentist. Confrontation makes me literally sick. Sometimes when I know I have to address something, I get lightheaded and nauseated. I have to spend hours in front of a mirror working out what I am going to say.

But it had to be done. I spotted him across the store, and my stomach churned with each step. As I got closer to him, my ears roared and my head felt dizzy and the moment seemed surreal. Did I mention I hate confrontation?

“Hey,” I said, my tone oozing with genuine apology. “I’m so sorry. I never meant to offend you.”

He didn’t look at me. ICE. PURE ICE.  I continued, trying to control the sound of my own voice over my pounding heart and ringing ears.

“I had heard LP guys are frequently working undercover, and I didn’t want to distract you. I…wanted to let you do your job.”

Not moving from his position of ever watching, looking anywhere but me, he replied,“I even saw you this morning, and I said ‘hi,’ and you just kept walking.”

That morning? Let’s see….that morning. I had spent it meandering through our mall, writing a blog post in my head. The entire mall, with its shiny glittery wares, sumptuous smells and Babylonian merchants, had faded into a muted backdrop. I was alone, with words, sentences and paragraphs partnering off in my head, in a tentative mating dance until I married them into just the right prose.

How could I explain this to the angry, joyless man in front of me? You see, I’ve got this blog, with these dancing words and they need the right partners…Uh-huh. (Then, on the other hand, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. My square dancing words could get me labeled as the crazy girl and he’d leave me alone).

In the end, I opted for honesty.

“Wow. I really did not see you. I just…I have a lot on my mind,” I said meekly.

His face was hard and cold, and he wouldn’t look at me. But, my words softened him just a bit. I didn’t know what else to say. You’re unapproachable? I’m petrified of LP guys because I was once falsely accused of stealing? You are seriously overreacting? You’ve never talked to me either?

Finally, I walked away and stared back at Cardboard Diddy. I wondered what he would do. He’d probably have some wisecrack retort that told the guy to screw off. Sure, if I were Diddy I wouldn’t need LP on my side. I wouldn’t need this job. If I were Diddy, I could tell anybody to screw off.

I eventually decided I had done due diligence for my part of the offense. If R was still mad, well, that’s his problem. But, one never wants to make enemies of the LP guy. So, for the next few months, I made a concerted effort to greet him. Every time I saw him, I would stop, smile, make eye contact, and offer a boisterous, “Hello.”

To which, I would receive a nod, a slight smile, or a cold “hello.” But never any conversation. I once tried to engage him in a conversation, and it fell flatter than the Roadrunner under an ACME truck. After weeks of paying penance for my crime, I didn’t see the relationship progress any further. I started to get irritated.

What was I? A “hello” hooker? You want your “hello” but no relationship? Besides, everytime I see him now, my stomach churns with the memory of his burning anger. I didn’t deserve that. I faded into a faint smile and nod.

Yesterday was the last straw. I saw him come down a hall. He smiled and gave a one shake nod. I simply gave him a tight-lipped smile and uttered a quick, “Hey.” After he passed me, I heard him mutter with near hatred in his voice, “I say hello and she just walks right past me.”

I stopped in my tracks. Now, really?! Dude, get a life. I’m done playing your stupid game. I shook my head and decided I was done being polite.

(I may need a new job, though).


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