For someone who spends so much time in a shop, I both disappoint and pride myself on how little I enjoy shopping. Pride because it saves a lot of money and suggests a good work-life balance, and disappointment because many of the things I need are to be found in shops. It’s a necessary evil for me much of the time. I don’t mind grocery shopping, and when it comes to most other things, I’m usually organised enough that there’s no last-minute gift buying or frenzied purchase of other essentials. I completely lose my cool, however, when it comes to the transaction of goods & services to do with physical appearance.
Most of the time, I don’t wear much makeup. This cuts down expenses, getting ready time in the morning, means I look way better in photos of special occasions, and reduces the time I ever have to spend buying cosmetics. This last point is key. I realised I’d have to buy some nice makeup for a wedding a little while ago, and since it was overseas, figured I’d buy it all duty-free, saving myself a little money and killing time at the airport because I always get there obscenely early anyway. I was with my mother, who shares my cosmetic-related aversion and proclivity for punctuality, and since we both had to remove our glasses to sample any kind of eye makeup, it was truly a case of the blind leading the blind. We fumbled along as best we could but realised we weren’t going to be able to do this alone. An employee approached to offer her assistance:
“Can I help you with anything?”
“Yes please. I don’t really know much about makeup, but think I need some foundation.”
“Ok, what kind of coverage do you want?”
At this her eyes practically rolled out of their sockets. I was prepared to take whatever suggestions she offered but instead she let out a sigh. It was the sound an unimpressed cat might make when a new puppy is brought home. I bought the first thing she deigned to offer me a sample of, and to this day still don’t know what she meant by “coverage.”
“What about some lipstick?”
“Oh yeah, guess I’d better get some. I think I should be able to choose that on my own though, thanks all the same.”
“And do you need lipliner?”
“They’re over here.”
I was even more confused. I didn’t have any, but did that mean I needed it? Is that the kind of thing anyone ever actually needs? I forewent the product on account of it sounding a little too much like dark magic. I ended up with foundation, lipstick, new eyeliner and eyeshadow (the only items I had any familiarity with but have probably been doing wrong for years) and free mascara for my expenditure. I put the lot on my credit card, grabbed my mother (who had cleverly taken a backseat to the proceedings) and rushed to the gate as though we were in some sort of hurry. I messaged Jenn to disperse my stress and unravel the mystery of lipliner. She told me that my decision to forego it was for the best and never to go makeup shopping without her. My relief was palpable, because to go back for lipliner would feel like reentering the gates of hell, and flagrantly gone against her second instruction. I got out of that shop, that airport, that country, as quickly as I could. I reentered the country and airport (but not the shop) a month and a half later, having put off the retraumatisation for as long as I could.
It did teach me a useful lesson in customer service though. I had admitted to the sales assistant up front that I was in unfamiliar territory, and am certain I looked at least half as scared as I felt. Even beneath the currents of perfume samples, she could assuredly smell my fear. What I needed in that moment was a basic makeup kit and some assurance, and while I was satisfied with my purchases in the end, as she looked down her perfectly made up nose, I felt about the size of the free mascara I’ve since used only twice. I already felt like an idiot, in need of help without disapproval. I’m prepared to admit that I was already very sensitive to even the slightest whiff of judgment in that department, but it felt lathered over me like shellac. It got me wondering if that’s how I come across when a customer at the bookshop asks for the latest 50 Shades instalment.
Disappointingly, I think I sometimes do, albeit perhaps to a smaller degree. Not only do I quietly enjoy feeling superior, I also have a very expressive face. My expressions of disapproval are never far away, and because I can’t raise one eyebrow without the other, half my lip curls instead and I fear I go around this world sneering at anything that causes me even the slightest displeasure. I’ve tried really hard to correct this though, and think I’ve been at least moderately successful because I still have a job. Two jobs, in fact, both focused on customer service. Mostly it’s friends and colleagues who bear my accumulated sneers, and because they have a solid sense of self and know it’s nothing personal, they laugh it off as a symptom of my curmudgeonly old soul and general world-weariness. They know me well.
So when a customer approached me in the bookshop and said she needed to buy a present for a kid, but didn’t know much about them or what their age group might be into, I was ready to help. It’s not her job to know what the youths are reading, it’s mine. She followed up with one proviso, however, that completely countered both productivity and intuition: she didn’t want to buy a book. Thankfully I was leading her to the kids’ section at this point, and as she was walking behind me, could not see my face. Even my most pronounced reactive judgment doesn’t reach the back of my head, and I had a couple of seconds to compose a response. How desperately I wanted to inform her that she was in a bookshop, that we sold books, that when someone comes into a bookshop to buy a present, they invariably leave with a book. But who would that have helped? Presumably she knew she was in a bookshop and hoped we were the kind that sold puzzles, board games, crockery and plant seeds. (These are all commodities which can be purchased at a bookshop I used to work at. Yes, even the seeds.) So hey, who was I to be judging her? Obviously I did or I wouldn’t have laughed about it with colleagues later or be writing about it now, but I realised I could do so without calling her out on her faux pas. I would’ve enjoyed a second of smugness as the insult sunk in, and then we both would’ve felt like fools. I’d have offended her and regretted it immediately. I showed her to the craft section instead.
I optimistically expect the makeup I bought to last me a good long while, and when it does run dry I’ll make an identical purchase online. There’s a lot to be said for cutting out the middleman, but my livelihood is as exactly that. I’m not paid for my snide comments, which I happily give away for free. If I weren’t so intimidated by potentially rude makeup salespeople, maybe I’d buy it with slightly greater frequency. I don’t want to put people off buying books, and I have some great book-related conversations with customers. They’re not all as out of their depth with books as I am buying makeup. I certainly don’t want to put myself out of a job because I come across as superior and unaccommodating. I may have to begin my career anew as a makeup sales assistant. And who needs that?