Shema Yisroel. We are told this as a primary commandment. We recite it twice everyday and then once more as we lay in bed. Hashem commands us to “Hear!” But what are we supposed to hear? This is a huge command which encompasses many different dimensions but one aspect must be to hear the life around us. I myself learned the art of listening as a cashier at Whole Foods Market. I was between jobs and getting over a medical issue. The market was a great gig while I recovered. While there, I also learned how to strengthen my neshama and my connection to Hashem.
Working a register is pretty straightforward but there are still nuances. Ringing people up, being pleasant toward them and not getting bored all play into it. Some of the most important feedback in my life has come from my time there. During my six month performance review my managers told me, “Every customer is different.”
They meant each person who arrives at the register has different needs and I needed to be better about reading that. How much can you tell about a person shopping for groceries? It turns out, a lot.
My managers meant to tell me: you have to listen and respond to each customer differently; they’re not the same.
I was friendly, pleasant, polite and positive which many customers personally told me they appreciated. But I still had room to improve. When I paid closer and more directed attention, I realized people tell us bits of their lives all the time — what they wear, how they walk, what they buy. Are they soft spoken or exuberant, serious or unconcerned? Do they have three kids at home and groceries to unpack or are they blissfully married with no kids to fret after? Do they appreciate how sweet they have it or do they breeze by unaware, as if everyone lived this way?
Listening is an art. Perhaps my many years studying anthropology in a foreign country gave me a head start, but I feel at home while people watching. Everyone is pretty much worrying about the same things; everyone has slight variations of the same needs and everyone is dealt from the same deck of cards in the hand of life, some more stacked and others less so. Even when people are somewhat rude, I shrug it off. Who am I to judge them harshly? I’ve been in the same place too.
I’ve also learned to shrug comments off another way: with humor. We joke that every register is a different TV channel and when something happens positive or negative, we enthusiastically report it to our co-workers, “Channel two was great TV just now!” Part of the art of staying positive is to be light hearted and quick to laugh.
I learned how to keep a fairly repetitive job interesting. It required a good deal of hitbonadut (active reflection on concepts of observance).
Some people may stigmatize a job as a cashier as beneath them. I personally concluded that there is never shame, and in fact great dignity, in doing whatever you need to do to pay the bills. We all need money to survive. It’s one of the most universal connection points among all people today.
Is it possible to be genuinely interested in every person that passes you by? I learned that genuine interest stems from adopting a mindset of emulating our Creator, who always has his encouraging attention turned toward us. So by the same token, I turn it toward my customers. God believes that all of us matter; to realize this, we have to believe it ourselves. Everyone’s life is just as interesting as mine and I want them to succeed in everything they aspire to do. I try to radiate this back to them as we speak.
This approach transforms the mundane into the holy. Their every word becomes a cliffhanger, a never before revealed detail in the drama of their life. It is at this point I “lean in” and trust that with a warm and positive heart and without too much conscious effort I’ll respond positively to them and continue our pleasant demeanor. Shammai says, “receive all men with a pleasant countenance.” I stand with bated breath while Hashem gives me the supporting hand to push me through the endless unfolding of customers in line. It exemplifies the art of listening.
“Hello! How are you today?” These are two more of the most powerful and profound sentences I will ever speak. They are a gateway to another person’s life, the beginning of a new relationship. To borrow from the Chinese, “Us” is the gateway to “me” (the word for “us” in Chinese is literally “the door to me”).
Those words open doors. They are keys to the halls of our souls. They say, “I am consistent, I am gradual, and when we’re both ready to go further we will.” They leave the doors to relationships perpetually unlatched, ready to be opened when I am ready. I thank God every day that I’ve had the opportunity for this job and the lessons it has taught me.