Smile Politely

An open letter to Black Friday

It’s that time of year again. What time exactly? Well, that’s tricky.

According to the calendar, it’s still autumn, of course; but who pays any attention to calendars? It seems like only few minutes ago it was summer, and now, after the merest suggestion of sweater weather, it would appear that Fall has shown up and immediately stripped naked like some deviant party guest, exposing its branches to the raw-boned cold. Winter now. Temperamental, assholic Illinois Winter.

If you look at a calendar this week, it’ll tell you that Thanksgiving is on Thursday, but anybody who’s been outside, looked at their email inbox, or turned on a TV in the last month will tell you we’re already looking well past that. Hurry up and eat your turkey, will you? It’s time to start shopping!

Ah, holiday shopping. The gladiatorial contest of the Xbox generation.

If I’m not mistaken, the “holiday shopping season” began around St. Patrick’s Day this year. That’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one. I can say with certainty that I saw more than a few Christmas tree and holiday giftwrap displays while there were still discounted Halloween costumes on the racks. And that’s fine. As a society, we’ve gotten used to the fact that the major end-of-year gift-giving holidays have encroached further and further into turkey territory, resulting in a focus on holiday shopping that makes Thanksgiving an afterthought.

And please, let’s be clear about something. When I talk about “holiday” gift buying, I’m talking about Christmas. I’m not out to offend anybody by being less than inclusive, but I also don’t think there’s much traction to the idea that Chanukah or Kwanzaa is causing the stampede of shopping and spending that overshadows the entire month of November. Those holidays don’t have the rhinoceros-like momentum of Christmas, nor do they have the rabid fanbase.

I should make it clear, at this bend in the road, that the purpose of this article isn’t to defame Christmas. In fact, I’m a big fan. Since I was a little kid, I’ve loved the holiday. Between the solemn pageantry of Christmas Eve church services and the materialistic gluttony of Christmas morning, there was a lot to love. Candles, singing, hot chocolate, the smell of pine needles, lots of hugs and TV specials and presents… It was pretty much everything a lower-middle-class Midwestern kid could want. Now, as an adult, still lower-middle-class and now a seriously lapsed protestant, I still love this time of year. I still love the music and the seasonal peppermint flavors at Starbucks. I still love the old movies on TV and the decorations slapped onto every lamppost and shop window.

But now my love of Christmas is something I have to work at. It’s something I have to maintain and lean into, fighting my cynicism and digging for the good bits that nourish me, as one might do with a religious doctrine or a diet plan. Why do I have to struggle to maintain my Christmas spirit? Why do I have to work so hard to cling to the warm feelings of glad tidings and good will?

Because I work in retail.

For the one or two of you who don’t already know, the term “Black Friday” came about because so much shopping is done on that single post-Thanksgiving day that it might be possible for a struggling retail establishment to recoup any losses from the preceding calendar year and finish “in the black.” For those who work in retail, however (and I would expand this to include those who work in the foodservice industry as well), Black Friday has a different connotation. Because we’ve seen what this day can do to people.

We’ve all heard the tales of the good men and women trampled in their quest to snatch the last Tickle-Me Elmo or Cabbage Patch Kid. We’ve seen the lines of shoppers queuing outside the Best Buy or the Wal-Mart in the bitter cold like they were waiting for Springsteen tickets. If you haven’t heard those tales, by the way, itmight be worth your time to peruse a little website called Black Friday Death Count, which catalogs, year by year, the reported injuries and even deaths (accidental and otherwise) that have occurred on this blessed day. Now, sure, obviously, of course it’s possible to go out and enjoy your day of shopping without anything going awry. But this can be a strange, dark little alternate-reality kind of day in which people’s inner Visigoths announce their presence with authority. Over a parking space. Over a plastic toy. Those who have been on the “front lines” on Black Friday have seen first-hand how ordinarily decent people can transform—in a single day, in a single trip to the mall—into craven, opportunistic, single-minded bullies. There’s a reason Roger Corman set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall, y’all.

But enough with the preamble.

What I’m here to suggest—to plead for, really—is this: If you’re planning to brave the crowds this coming Friday in order to get a really good deal or because it’s a tradition of yours, or—Hell, even if you just think it’s fun…  If you’re going to be out shopping on Black Friday, be good to the people on the other side of the checkout counter. Be courteous to the people who are stocking the shelves or bringing your food or steaming your foamy coffee drink. Employ some courtesy, some empathy, and some human kindness.

There is not a single retail or restaurant employee who wouldn’t rather be spending money on Friday instead of earning it. But that’s retail. It’s a job, and often it’s a thankless one. And if you are man or woman or human being enough to take a breath and say “Thank You” to one of these nametag-wearing individuals on Friday; if you’re person enough to understand when the toy you’ve been looking for is out of stock, or if one of the two hundred people in front of you got the last copy of the new John Grisham novel; if you’re charitable enough to understand when things take a moment longer than you’d like or someone makes a mistake in the process of trying to help you accomplish your materialistic task… keep in mind that there will be seventeen other people who won’t be as nice.

I’m not saying this will necessarily be easy. The store might well be a war zone. The line might well stretch beyond the limits of reason, let alone the limits of the velvet ropes. And, yes, it’s entirely possible that the person ringing up your purchase won’t be able to maintain his or her sunny disposition for the whole of the day. It just might be that, by the time you’ve waited in the line that’s too long to buy the things that are too expensive in the store that’s too crowded in which the music is too loud, the person taking your money might not greet you as cheerily as you’d like. Your café barista might seem frazzled; your lunch server might seem tired; your cashier might seem as if he or she would rather be anywhere else. It has nothing to do with a lack of enthusiasm for one’s work. It has nothing to do with laziness or ill temper. (OK, like ten percent of the time it has something to do with that; some people are just grouchy.) What it has to do with, mostly, is heading into work on the busiest day of the year knowing full well that the majority of people with whom you come into contact will view you as less than a full person.

And I know, I know… I get it. Nobody likes to be asked a billion questions at a checkout counter. You’ve been shopping all day, you’ve been standing in line half an hour, you’re within sight of the door for crying out loud. No you don’t want to join the Secret Email Coupon Club. No you don’t want to donate a dollar to the Christmas Orphan Jamboree. No you don’t want to supersize anything. You just want to pay your money, take your bag of crap, and go home. I get that. There’s nothing wrong with shopping. There’s nothing even a little bit wrong with trying to buy a gift for a loved one or, for that matter, with trying to save some money. Nobody’s got enough as it is, and you can only do what you can do. But you can still be nice.

And it’s on you as well, Retail Peeps. It’s on you to try to understand the individuals within the surging hordes of shoppers. It’s up to you to empathize and try to find that extra gear, to smile through the frustration and do your job well. It’s going to be a slog. It’s going to be a long, hard, uphill day chockfull of rude, entitled people. It’s up to you not to let Black Friday win.

So, that’s my plea. To both sides. To the shoppers, whatever their reasons, whatever their needs. And to the clerks and waiters and cashiers and customer service reps and assistant managers and brand-new seasonal temps. Just be a person. Take a second to see that the person in front of you is also a person.

We’re all in this together, folks.

And if we can get through Friday without acting like a bunch of cocks, then God Bless Us, Everyone.

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