|Agostino Brunias, Free West Indian Dominicans|
So. I have a job now. I'd prefer to leave its description and duties unspecified here. It's enough to say it's in customer service (which I am resigned to never escaping), and it isn't particularly glamorous or lucrative. But it is allowing me to make rent, so for the time being I'll be keeping to myself any grievances I may have.
The setting and gist of the gig is a space where visitors browse about, and if they would like to procure any of the merchandise on display, they speak to me (or my cohorts). A procedural remnant from my days at the Caribbean coffeehouse and the hip grocery store chain (heck, and probably from my teenage years jollily upselling at the mallcore superstore) is my tendency to greet people when they come within a certain distance of my person. Usually I dispense with the "hello how can I help you" crap. Rather: Hey. Hi. How's it going. What's up. Wassup. Sup. Wass. Namaste. Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya. & cetera. Actually, what I most often say is "good morning" or "good afternoon," but we'll get into that in a moment.
Sometimes my greetings' recipients will say hello back. And every once in a while we'll indulge in some light chitchat that doesn't leave a bad taste in my mouth.
But I think the most frequent answer I get when I say "hello" is "just looking." Or: "No thanks."
I'm used to hearing this. I've heard it ever since I was accosting bewildered-looking parents surveying the Nightmare Before Christmas swag display at the mallcore superstore in search of holiday gifts for their teenaged progeny. But until recently I haven't found it as disrespectful and offensive as I do now.
I am almost certain this shift was effectuated by my eight-month residence in the US Virgin Islands. The native sons and daughters of St Thomas are easygoing in many respects, but they exhibit a perhaps startling punctiliousness where salutatory etiquette is concerned.
The first time I really appreciated this was one morning during my first or second month at the café, when I had to put a caller on hold to wrap up a long, complicated to-go order from the customer standing across from me at the counter. When I got back on the phone I must have said something like "thanks, sorry about that."
"Good morning." The speaker was male, probably an older man, and his creole phonetics marked him a native-born St Thomian.
"What can I do for you?"
"Hi. What can I—"
"Good morning. What can I do for you?"
He commenced with his order.
If you glance at any Virgin Islands tourism guide, the authors will tell you that there are three acceptable ways of greeting somebody who isn't a friend or family member: good morning, good afternoon, and good night. (Obviously which one you use depends on the time of day.) The same guidebook will elsewhere inform you that the island locals are generally very friendly and more than happy to answer questions or give directions, but the authors will recur to the proper greetings and strongly advise their use. If you just walk up to a West Indian on the street and say "hey can you tell me how to get to the beach/bus stop/strip club"—without opening with "good morning/afternoon/night"—you will come off to him/her as pompous and not a little impolite. And, again, it goes both ways: if you answer a St Thomian's "good afternoon" with "hey" or "hi," or anything but "good afternoon," you might as well be replying to them with a snort.
I'm certainly no authority on Caribbean culture or sociology, but I feel this insistence on courtesy and ritual, however stuffy or sedulous it might first appear, bespeaks something beautiful and maybe increasingly necessary. It evinces an unspoken agreement between strangers in this society. Namely: before you and I conduct our business, before you say what you want from me or I ask something of you, let's take a short moment for a dignified acknowledgement of one another's humanity.
After returning to the mainland, and still to this day, the first words out of my mouth when I'm approaching someone behind a store counter are almost always goo morning, good afternoon, or good evening. (It took a couple of weeks to get out of the habit of saying "good night;" I got some funny looks from a few 7-Eleven clerks.) And I do see that it is appreciated. I've worked enough cash registers to know how pleasant it is to not be regarded as an automaton.
"Good afternoon," I'll say.
"No thanks," they'll say.
This is not uncommon at all. Why is it not more widely perceived as an egregious discourtesy?
It would be one thing if the clerk/associate/salesperson/whatever was leading with "can I get you something." In that case "no thanks" would be perfectly appropriate. But to answer a greeting with a deferral is is pure semantic disrespect. The exchange can be boiled down to:
I suspect in these instances the consumer is not deliberately acting rudely, because the consumer doesn't actually hear what is being said. The sounds issuing from the worker's mouth are not words to be parsed and considered as words having meanings: they are something more like the startup.wav to a commercial transaction. You might remember, during our palaver about urbanism, Karl Marx, and Marshall McLuhan, we touched on the Marxian concept of alienation: the tendency of a capitalistic social organization to estrange people from their work, from themselves, and from each other. When the consumer approaches a counter and addresses (or is addressed by) a service worker, he is less disposed to perceive the object standing at the cash register as a person than a function. The worker's greeting is not to be mistaken for the prelude to any kind of interpersonal exchange between living human beings; it is an OK/Cancel window, and it is because we as consumers are trained to treat it as such.
Hence my appreciation for the Virgin Islanders' insistence on polite salutations. "Good morning/afternoon/night, nothing else, and nothing before" is a socially enforced ritual, certainly, and it can be performed as perfunctorily as the tired sales clerk's "how may I help you"—but it is at the final an effective pushback against what is essentially wanton incivility promoted and tolerated for the sake of efficiency.