Dare To Smile

Smile, says the Safeway supermarket chain to its employees. Make eye contact. Be cheerful and courteous. Simple rules for business - and life.

I, too, have been admonished by my wife on occasion: "If you're happy, Dave, please tell your face."

It's an utterly reasonable request - hers and Safeway's. Sullen isn't attractive. An old Chinese proverb says: "A man without a smile must not open a shop." Got a poker face? Go to Vegas.

If you want an ongoing relationship with a customer (or a spouse), basic expressions of friendliness go with the territory.

But Safeway workers in Martinez, Calif., find their grocery-aisle geniality is being perceived as flirtation. Or worse, a come-on. And some Safeway employees (12 women and one man) are balking at being propositioned by customers. They're fed up with presumed coquetry in the checkout line.

"Let me decide who I am going to say hello to with a big smile," said Richelle Roberts, a produce clerk. "A woman knows where and when not to open that door for certain men."

Ms. Roberts and others have filed a complaint with their union and the National Labor Relations Board. Lately the company has been enforcing its policy with hired "mystery shoppers," who report workers who serve customers sans smile. No pink slips. But 100 employees have gone to a one-day, role-playing class aimed at bettering their attitude.

Still, I wouldn't want some creep following my wife or daughter to her car after work, as one Safeway worker says has happened.

That's a legitimate safety issue. But a harassed worker shouldn't wait months to file a grievance with her union. She should tell her supervisor immediately.

Even with 1,400 stores, "rarely does a customer get out of line," says Safeway spokeswoman Debra Lambert. "If they do, we have zero tolerance for harassment."

The problem here isn't the smile policy but how a few customers react to it. Are smiles so rare and hard to interpret that when a person gets one, it means "Hit on me"?

I don't think so. But just in case, maybe we could take a cue from a newspaper ad taken out by New York department store in the 1930s. According to Dale Carnegie in "How To Win Friends and Influence People," the store's sales clerks were barely coping with the holiday rush. The ad was entitled "The Value of a Smile at Christmas Time," and it read in part:

"It costs nothing, but creates much.

"It enriches those who receive, without impoverishing those who give.

"It creates happiness in the home, fosters good will in a business, and is the countersign of friends.... And if in the last-minute rush of Christmas some of our salespeople should be too tired to give you a smile, may we ask you to leave one of yours?"

Go ahead. Leave several for your spouse, your family. Practice a little with your neighbors. And when you think you've got it down, give one to a stranger. Or a Safeway worker.

* We're home. Let us know how we're doing. Write to the Homefront Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115 or e-mail home@csps.com

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