I was shopping at the supermarket the other day when the nice young woman at the checkout greeted me with ‘how’s your day been?’
This seems to be the regulation greeting for people in the service industry these days. How does this come about? Do they learn it at TAFE? I presume not, because you don’t have to have TAFE qualifications to work behind a counter, do you? Although for all I know you might have to. I’m a bit out of touch these days.
Whatever. Somehow these things go viral through the community and everyone behind a counter wants to know how the customer’s day has been.
I don’t mind it. It’s a lot better than being asked ‘how are you today?’ which used to be the standard follow-up to ‘hello’ or ‘hi’ or ‘g’day’.
I think perhaps the service industry has twigged that customers know you aren’t really interested in their wellbeing, and a lot of people are either annoyed at being asked what is after all a rather personal question by someone with whom they’re having a fleeting encounter, or irritated by having to answer either ‘fine, thank you’, which may or may not be true, or to rattle off a list of grumbles, in which I’m sure the service person is even less interested.
The same goes for the workplace.
When I was still working I used to always greet our receptionist with a cheery ‘Hello Diane (not her real name)’. She would invariably reply ‘Hi Annie, how are you?’ even though I hadn’t asked the same thing of her. In fact I’d made a point of NOT enquiring, so as to avoid the daily tedium of ‘fine, thank you’, going both ways. Sometimes I just didn’t answer the ‘how are you’ bit, and sailed past to my workstation, but that always felt a bit rude. I used to fantasise about stopping for a moment to say ‘Look, Diane, if I’ve come in to work you may take it as a sign now and in the future that I am well enough to do so, and you need not enquire EVERY SINGLE DAY as to my personal well-being.’
But I never did that either.
Doctors, dentists and suchlike can get away with ‘how are you today?’ Indeed it’s probably desirable coming from a health professional.
But it’s definitely not okay coming from someone on the other end of a telephone helpline. When you’ve waited for god knows how long for someone in a call centre god knows where to finally speak to you, the last thing you want is for them to ask how you are. For one thing, your patience has worn so thin from having waited so long that your likely immediate response is to offload your grumpiness onto them even though you know it’s not their fault.
I have to confess to being so irritated by this formulaic greeting that once, I just refused to answer the question. He said ‘hello, how are you today?’ I said ‘hello’ and left it at that. There was a pause, and he actually repeated the question! ‘HOW ARE YOU TODAY?’
I took a deep breath, composed myself and said words to the effect of ‘Since you ask, I’m not happy about having to wait so long to have my call answered and I know it’s not your fault but I also know you don’t have the slightest interest in my circumstances beyond my complaint, so please can we just get on with the subject in hand? And perhaps you might suggest to your employers that it is not good PR to enforce this ridiculous interrogation!’
That’s why ‘how’s your day been’ is a slight improvement. You can actually give an honest response to this one. If it’s a nice day you can say with a smile how grand it is to be out and about on such a day, and if it’s not you can roll your eyes and make a disparaging remark about the weather, to which the service person can add their own sympathetic response.
When someone asks “how are you today” it sounds like it needs a considered answer. After all, the question is often asked sincerely by people close to you who really do want to know how you are.
My theory is that when it comes in a fleeting encounter with a shop assistant, the brain goes into a momentary tizz while it processes whether to give an honest considered answer or an empty formulaic one. It’s that distraction that irritates.
The other thing about “how are you?” is that it seems to have become permanently attached to the initial greeting, as in the case of my former workmate at the ABC mentioned earlier. But it applied just as much to on-air guests or callers. You’d introduce them by saying “next up we’ve got Joe Blow. Hello Joe.” Joe would then say “Hello Annie, how are you?”
This used to drive us presenters up the wall. Caller after caller would ask “how are you” even after every previous one had asked the same question and been given the same answer. (Which is always “fine”, by the way. On-air whingeing is not allowed.)
A fellow ABC presenter once tried to reform his listeners’ habits by saying at the start of his program: “For the record, I’m fine, so can we please dispense with asking me how I am.” It didn’t work. Some people just can’t say “hello” or “hi” without adding “how are you?”
Mind you, there are certain perils awaiting the careless questioner who throws this one about willy nilly. They might just come up against someone like a friend’s mother who was getting on in years and prone to the odd physical ailment. When asked “how are you today” she was downright uninhibited about answering at length and in great detail.
So in general “how’s your day been?” is an improvement on “how are you today?” If you don’t feel like engaging, you can fob the enquirer off with “not too bad”. This is probably the best response if there is a queue of impatient customers behind you. But if there isn’t, you might go for a smile or even a laugh by giving a short account of getting caught in the rain, or the difficulty of finding a parking spot round here, or the endearingly silly thing your dog did this morning, whereupon you both roll your eyes in mutual understanding of life’s little curveballs.
One reader confesses to being mildly irritated by “any plans for the rest of the day?” I agree it can be, but it depends who’s doing the asking. Hairdressers – no problem. It’s the standard follow up to how you want your hair done. And let’s face it: you’ve got at least half an hour (fifteen minutes if you’re a bloke, but you get the point) of relative physical intimacy with this person, so why not pass it with a friendly chat.
It’s the same with dentists. But not when your mouth is propped wide open, stuffed with cotton wool and full of steel implements and that noisy saliva-sucking thing.
Another reader doesn’t mind “enjoy the rest of your day” but feels compelled to say “you too”. So do I, but that’s okay. No harm in returning a pleasantry.
Yet another reader thinks he’s noticed a trend in the way service people answer the initial customer request. He says instead of “not a problem” or “absolutely”, he’s getting the even more affirmative “100%”.
Affirmativeness is a big thing with service people these days, especially young ones. Many a mundane transaction with a young sales attendant or waiter concludes with the young person exclaiming that the entire process has been “awesome!” Which I suppose is better than a grumpy grunt.
When it comes to farewelling the customer, I always hated ‘have a nice day’. Somehow it seems to have been replaced by a new formula which I don’t find so phony and irritating, although don’t ask me to explain why: Enjoy the rest of your day!
These thoughts were published in the New Norfolk News and Derwent Valley Gazette in May and June 2022