Hard to be human

The price we pay for consistency and convenience at scale, and the simple path to reclaiming it — a tale of Trader Joe’s cheese isle encounters, global-scale content design, really expensive radishes, and the golden rule.

One morning, a few weeks ago, I was shopping at Trader Joe’s. The store can get quite busy, but weekday mornings are relatively quiet and, I noticed, a time when many goods are being restocked. Indeed, when I came to the cheese section, there was a man stocking, right in front of the item I needed to get. “Excuse me,” I said. “Sorry to interrupt, but I need to get that cheese right above your head.”

He stopped, looked at me briefly like I was an alien, and then thanked me for asking. “You’d be surprised. Most people don’t ask. They just reach around me like I’m not here,” he said. He went on to tell me it was one of the hardest things about this job, that they talked about it in their team meetings. “People treat us like we’re invisible.”

Another employee, overhearing our conversation, dashed over to join in, explaining that because she’s short, shoppers would just reach over her head to grab the produce she was stocking.

Here we were in progressive Brooklyn, where many of these same shoppers had thrown open their windows each evening at 7 during the early days of the pandemic to cheer for essential workers. Yet most, it seemed, couldn’t even muster a polite, “excuse me?” I muttered an apology on behalf of humanity, and we all nodded solemnly, before returning to our separate tasks.

Aside from being located in a massive city and selling no alcohol (grocery stores are forbidden from doing so in New York State), the Trader Joe’s where this little encounter took place is not unlike Trader Joe’s I’ve visited in California, Arizona, and many other places. Trader Joe’s, as they say in my work world, operates at scale, meaning they are able to replicate a successful and unique grocery store experience fairly consistently even as they grow. And how they have grown. There are currently 530 Trader Joe’s in existence according to the store’s Wikipedia page.

Operating at scale without sacrificing some of what makes your business unique is hard to do for any type of experience, but Trader Joe’s goes beyond the basics that many grocery store chains rely on, namely branding and uniforms, to include such “quirks” as colorful chalk signage, bell ringing, stickers for children, and preternaturally cheerful employees. In short, they try to make their stores feel like welcoming, human places in the exact same way, no matter where they are. Based on my limited sampling, I’d say they do a decent job of it.

My current job also requires operating at scale. As a content designer on products that are used around the world, I’m currently preparing text I’ve written to be translated into over 80 languages, plus many regional variants. I need to find a way to maintain the warmth and humanity of the voice I’ve developed for the digital product I work on, while ensuring it’s communicating clearly to people across continents, cultures, vast differences in culture and lived experience.

While I’m taking every step to ensure things go well, I know, no matter how carefully I approach things, how many exceptions I make to the well-oiled process to ensure the integrity of the language, I will eventually have to pare down some of the key tonal clues that let people know there are humans behind their screen. To translate those clues well would require doing things in a far more bespoke way than we have the time or resources to support. Operating at scale demands efficiency, after all.

Luckily I have full control over how and where my messages are delivered. In a customer service environment, employees are often asked to be the messengers of ideas, and sometimes exact phrases, carefully crafted and sent down from on high. If you’ve ever heard the words, “Welcome to Walmart,” droned unconvincingly from a tired-looking, underpaid employee’s mouth as you entered one of these giant stores, you know the perils here.

What’s the point, I’ve often wondered, of doing this if it can’t be done well? How can you expect people, especially underpaid ones, to act authentically human in mechanized ways? If the medium is the message, what are we saying when we place our words in the mouths of people who often aren’t even paid a living wage? “Yet what is the alternative?” asks the mega corporation executive responsible for raising customer satisfaction scores across hundreds or even thousands of locations.

Words are just a part of it. There’s uniforms, codes of conduct, and other anonymizing factors at play in these environments. And so, in the artificially created world of retail operations at scale, the humans are trained to be part of the experience. Sometimes they’re trained so well that we sometimes forget they’re people and not, um, inconveniently shaped shelves that stand between us and our haloumi.

If Trader Joe’s and Walmart present us with humans being forced to act in human-like ways under inhuman conditions, airports and banks and customer service call centers offer us humans being presented as stopgaps when automated systems falter.

When the scanner fails to read a ticket, when the bag won’t fit on the conveyor, when something is wrong with the cash machine, when your order is marked as delivered but never arrived, the machine supplies a human, staffed according to precise algorithms, working hours that serve the industry not the person.

When things go well, these people are nameless, faceless, practically animatronic. But when it goes poorly, they are presented as there to help, assuming you can navigate your way through phone jail or a long line to get to them. Except, in the name of consistency and convenience at scale, they’ve been, for the most part, stripped of all autonomy, unable to extricate themselves from the machine that has caused the error or enforced the rule or whatever it is that’s gone wrong in the first place. If too many employees take it into their head to do things their own way, after all, the machine breaks down and chaos ensues.

You cannot yell at a machine and expect satisfaction. But in our confusion, many of us think the human who steps in to help is operating in a human capacity, that they will take compassion on our plight. When they don’t, some people get confused and upset. We get the phenomenon of the exploding customer, rage sputtering out of them at high velocity, while everyone in line behind them grows angrier at being forced to wait.

And here the inhuman becomes inhumane. For being treated as invisible is one thing. Being offered up as a surrogate for a machine that’s failed — or seems to have failed; for all we suspect it’s operating as intended — is another. The human before the irate customer is as helpless as they are, yet forced to bear the brunt of their anger and frustration. For machines can’t feel, only humans can.

No wonder so many in these positions armor themselves, turning the inhuman eye back on the customer. Treating them with indifference, barking orders instead of asking nicely.

One Saturday morning I was walking in my neighborhood farmer’s market behind a man and his young son. The child was wide-eyed, staring at the stalls overflowing with colorful produce and asking his dad if this was like a grocery store and could they shop here. And even though it was many years ago, the dad’s answer has stuck with me. “No,” he told his son, “this is for rich people. We can’t afford it.” And though some effort had been made in the form of accepting food-assistance debit cards, I knew he was right.

I myself had often marveled, after making my way through, at how much I’d spent, and in my privilege, this realization brought a sense of dismay, yes, but not real threat to me. I was willing to pay exorbitant prices for radishes and duck breasts — why? For the direct connection it afforded, between me and the humans cultivating my food. This was the luxury on offer. Everything else — local, quality goods — could be had another way.

Operating at scale — the opposite of the small, local greenmarket model — makes goods and services available, and in many cases affordable, to more people. The cost of doing business this way remains invisible, for the large part ineffable, and perhaps acceptable given the benefits. The functioning of our world is now so so dependent on these vast, interconnected systems operating at massive scale that, like so many things happening right now, to contemplate changing it leaves me with little more than the raw awareness of my own powerlessness to change much of anything.

That said, it’s not a given that we must trade our humanity in order to benefit from and function within these systems. That part is up to us.

I was already inclined to treat people like, well, people. But since my encounter in the cheese aisle, I aimed to do so more consciously and consistently. This has required shaking off the hypnotic effects of efficiency and convenience and getting out of my own head on a regular basis. Pause podcast, remove ear buds, make eye contact. Ask how someone’s day is and be curious about the answer. Say “please” and “thank you” and, yes, “excuse me.” It’s such run-of-the-mill stuff, I’m almost embarrassed to say it outloud. Yet, somewhere along the way we’ve let go of these simple things and, I believe, the cost has been enormous.

When I think of war, inequity, racism, hate, at the core of all of it is the failure of one set of humans to see and treat others as humans, as they would want to be treated. When I think of my own failures, all the times when I’ve behaved in ways I’m ashamed of, when I’ve said and done things that have hurt others, in these moments, too, I was also treating people more as concepts, ideas fixed in my head, instead of as the people they were.

In this light, recognizing our own humanity and that of others can feel like both a spiritual practice and an act of rebellion, small in scale, yes, but very satisfying. The nicest act of subversion I can think of, and with instantaneous benefits. It turns out, most people are nicer when you treat them nicely. So even if it doesn’t make a dent in the brokenness of this world we’ve built for ourselves, it does make it a better place to live in for ourselves and the people we meet along the way. That alone, I’ve found, makes being human worth the effort.

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I am a content designer by day and a writer, mother, neighbor, and much more the rest of the time. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY, and the Poconos.

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Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve

I am a content designer by day and a writer, mother, neighbor, and much more the rest of the time. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY, and the Poconos.

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