Practicing Generosity in the Check-Out Line

Waiting in line, whether at the grocery store, the bank, or the DMV, is a great way to observe humanity at its worst and at its best.

For too many of us, those “line moments” are keeping us from the next thing on our list – the doctor’s appointment, picking up the kids from school, getting to work on time, meeting a date. It is an enforced time of surrender to powers greater than ourselves. Have you ever noticed? When we’re in a hurry, no matter how good we think we are at choosing the fastest line, , invariably the line we’re in turns out to be the slowest.

I try to avoid putting myself into the position where I only have five minutes to accomplish a task that involves a line. This means going to the bank at the end of the day, instead of trying to squeeze it in between three other errands on the way to work. Or making the big trip to the grocery store on my days off, when there’s no where else I have to be any time soon.

When I don’t have that time crunch, it is much easier to be a good line person. I can wait patiently while the elderly woman in front of me empties her entire purse looking for her check book. I can feel sympathy instead of annoyance for the young mother with three kids who’s holding up a queue of people because the clerk is processing her WIC certificates. I can strike up a conversation with the person behind me, when I notice that we both picked up Ben & Jerry’s, instead of tapping my foot while the cashier replaces the register tape. I can connect with people, instead of separating myself into my own little world of building fury.

As a general rule, I am courteous and friendly with tellers and cashiers, servers and clerks. Part of it is my upbringing; part of it is intentional practice. While a piece of this is, of course, wanting to respect the other people that I come into contact with throughout the day, I must also admit that it serves me well. Most of the time, I get better service when I treat the person on the other side of the counter as a human being instead of a functionary.

I also truly enjoy getting to know the many people in my life. It feels good when the bank teller knows my name and gives me a smile. I am pleasantly amused when a server remembers that I don’t like mushrooms on my salad. I like the small talk, and the commiserations over the rainy weather, and the eye contact. It is a way of building community.

But, like everyone else, I have my moments of impatience. Especially when I’m caught up in myself, some crisis or stress or worry, I can become one of the “bad” line people, one of those surly, curt, unpleasant people that makes whoever’s waiting on me grimace when I step up for my turn. When it happens, it isn’t pretty.

Usually I catch myself in the middle, sometimes soon enough to save myself. I’m able to apologize, start fresh. But occasionally, the whole thing goes from bad to worse, and then it’s only when I’m home alone with some space to think that I realize I’ve completely misbehaved.

Many years ago, I heard a comedian do a routine on waiting in line. He was talking about waiting and waiting, forever. And then that magic moment, when you’re “next.” He spoke of it with giddiness, excitement. When he was “next,” he said, he became magnanimous. The impatience was gone. In fact, he would even turn to the person behind him and say, “No, please, go ahead.” It was not only about being gracious – it was about prolonging that anticipatory feeling, that sense of everything almost coming to fruition. The beauty of being “next.”

Frequently, when I am standing in line, and feeling a bit impatient, I remember that comedian. Every time, it makes me smile. And often, it opens me up just enough to practice generosity instead of stinginess. It reminds me how good giving can feel.

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