It was just another day at my local drug store. I picked up a few sundries, stood in line, showed my customer loyalty card—I hate them like everyone else does, but discounts are discounts—and paid my tab. The young man behind the counter was pleasant, and said hello, as I did. He then silently dumped a handful of paper, coins, and cash in my hand.
“Thank you,” I said.
“No problem,” he answered.
When I got home, I wondered, as I always do, when the customer became the person in a transaction to say “thank you,” instead of the clerk. “Thank you” for what, exactly? For letting me shop in your store? For allowing me to hand you my money? And when did “no problem” become standard English for “you’re welcome?”
So I did what all cranky people do in the twenty-first century. I sent a tweet.
Dear Every Cashier in America: the proper response to “thank you” is “you’re welcome,” not “no problem.” And *you’re* supposed to thank *me*
— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) September 13, 2015
That’s when my Twitter timeline turned into an Occupy Wall Street rally, except without the guy taking a dump next to a police car. Outrage filled my screen, as Twitter’s social vigilantes expressed their contempt for oppressive toothbrush-buyers like me exploiting the slave labor of kids in air-conditioned pharmacies. One guy even told me that cashiers having to say “thank you” was “fascism.” (I am not making this up.) Others castigated me for an outsized sense of importance in the economic food chain.
What a Freaking Facist
I won’t post all the tweets, since many of them were filled with language unsuitable for a magazine of ideas. Most—at least to judge by the pictures or attached “about me” websites—were from relatively younger people, the 20-somethings who are perpetually outraged about everything. A few, for some unfathomable reason, included pornography; I suppose younger people still have the quaint assumption that middle-aged guys can be shocked by such things. (Good luck with that. I lived in New York City before the Times Square renovation, but that’s another story.)
One of my favorite responses was from a young lady—well, a female, anyway—who decided that we all needed a lecture on capitalism. The cashier, she explained, gets paid whether customers come in to the store or not, so there’s no reason to thank them. (Again, I cannot make this up.) Of course, older and wiser heads tried to explain to her that no, actually, if the store doesn’t make money, the cashier doesn’t get paid. Although my interlocutor claimed at one point to be 34, her own “about me” page noted that she was 21 and her major occupation was writing zombie fan-fiction. This, I’m sure, surprises no one.
So why all the outrage over something so simple? (Let’s leave aside “no problem,” which I grant has become inescapable. It’s an annoying colloquialism that I use myself, a bad habit I’m trying to break.) Why so much fury over the idea that people in a transaction should thank their customers?
First, to use the language of Twitter: Because Twitter. Tweet anything on a Saturday night, and you’re in for a fight from at least a handful of maladjusted people. Say that you think people should be nice to puppies, and you will get incensed tweets from people who are certain your dog-favoritism is really veiled anti-Muslim sentiment. It’s what some people on Twitter just do, and you can’t get away from it.
The Short-Pants Communist Party
But there’s a deeper problem here, and it has to do not only with entitled and narcissistic millennials, but with the ideological triumph of the leftist notion that lousy jobs are merely oppression foisted upon people who deserve better. Here, the solipsism of the post-Boomer, post-Xer kids and the liberal fantasies about what “work” means fuse into a perfect amalgam of brittle fury:
How dare you suggest that my job, which oppresses me to begin with because it interferes with my leisure time, imposes any obligation upon me to recognize the essential nature of a free market transaction! Who do you think you are, you top-hatted slave-driver? You think because you bought a toothbrush from the company that pays me that I owe you anything more than correct change—if I can even count it properly? You think this makes you better than me? That’s what you think, isn’t it? You unconscionable bastard.
These are the young people whose fashionable and self-affirming hatred of capitalism at so tender an age once led the president of Boston University, the late John Silber, to label them “short-pants communists.”
To anyone who’s ever worked a lousy job—and I have worked many—this makes no sense. We are not what we do: we go to work in a crummy job to try to get a better job. In the meantime, we earn money for things we need, and occasionally for things we want. While on the clock, we do the best we can. If successful employment means saying “thank you” to the customer, then we do it.
Hell, if the company insists on each customer being greeted with “have a Smurfy day!” then we learn to say it, and if we don’t like it, we look for a different job. This is not complicated.
But I Am a Beautiful Butterfly
To a certain kind of twenty-first-century young person, however, loaded with social grudges and constantly resentful, the real issue is that the tired woman who just wants a cup of coffee for the ride home does not recognize his or her specialness.
For them, every moment in a job they don’t like is a constant affront to their self-image, an affirmation that society is all screwed up. A guy paying for a toothbrush is just another in the long line of oppressors who refuse to conclude each transaction by affirming the sheer awesomeness of a cashier destined for greater things.
That notion—that cashiering is only for those dead-ended by life’s injustices—revealed a dirty little secret in the midst of this brouhaha. The real class haters, the people who really look down on cashiers, are the ones who think cashiering is beneath them, or indeed, that it’s beneath anybody.
That’s why they’re so mad: it is they, not me, who see working in the service industry as grubby, unworthy work. They resent my simple idea for a “thank you” after a transaction because they think I should share their view of the cashier as an oppressed person in a horrible situation, not as a young man or woman in a job that’s paying them actual money in return for a certain number of hours of work.
When Honest Work Is Offensive
We know who the elitists are. They’re the ones who see every job in terms of how it makes them feel about themselves, not in terms of “honest work.” For these people, life is going to be very hard, especially as they get older and life refuses to indulge their sense of entitlement. They will not invent the hottest new app, write a great book (or read one, it seems), or break through in the graphic novel market. So they will have to do what so many of us have, and simply go to work.
They will do so with gritted teeth, always wondering why the world is so unfair, when a few minutes examining their own constant anger or their completely outsized sense of relative deprivation would explain far more to them than hours of rumination over the injustices of capitalism.
A few days after this drenching storm of indignation, I stopped at a store in Boston. I did a little shopping and put a few items on the counter. The cashier was a young man who opened a register when he saw me standing in line.
“Did you find everything you needed, sir?”
I was so surprised I said: “What?”
He asked me again. I did indeed, I said, and I thanked him for asking. I paid for my purchase in cash, and he counted out the change. He then said: “Thank you. Have a nice afternoon.”
I smiled. “Thank you,” I answered, and this time I wondered why anyone thought that two people being pleasant to each other during a simple transaction in a busy city was a crime against humanity. But then again, maybe it has something to do with why some people prosper and others fail.
Oh—and thank you for reading this.