Over the past two years or so, I’ve noticed increasingly aggressive small talk from clerks, tellers, cashiers, baristas, etc. At first I thought it was a generational thing, as they were all under 25. That changed this morning.
I stopped by a grocery store I rarely patronize to pick up a couple of things. The cashier was in her mid 40s, and I had never seen her before. We said, “good morning” to each other and she scanned my items while I got out my debit card. I was stunned when she asked me, “what are you doing today?”
I was flustered, and reflexively said “minding my own business.” I realized that she wasn’t trying to be rude, so I followed that with, “I’m sorry, I just don’t know how to answer that.”
Until recently, making small talk was just that: an action on the part of the small talker. Recently, however, there has been a shift towards extracting small talk from others. It has gone beyond asking about “your day,” and has now reached the point of overt, if pointless, interrogation.
Last year, for example, I went to the bank to withdraw some money. I asked the teller to make sure the bills where new and unblemished.
“Why do you need new bills?” he asked.
“I’m going overseas,” I replied.
At that point I gave him my best Clint Eastwood stare to suggest he was intruding on my privacy, but he didn’t get it.
“North, South, East, or West?” he pressed.
“But where? Why?”
At that point I just ignored him as if he hadn’t said a word.
I also ignore cashiers when they ask, “just this for you today?” when there is absolutely no ambiguity to be resolved, as in the purchase a single apple or what have you.
I wonder what it is about American culture that makes people think this sort of thing is acceptable. Whatever it is, it can’t be good.