Where have all the people gone?

It's possible to get gas, buy groceries, and make a bank deposit without ever talking to a human being. What are we giving up in the name of automated efficiency? In this polarized political environment, Americans need to interact with each other now more than ever. Chitchat matters.

I was standing in the 15-item express line at the grocery store...with 16 items in my cart. When the man behind me saw that I was over the limit, he threw me a look of disgust, and moved on to a shorter line. “No respect for the rules,” he muttered as he left.

Yahoo! I was finally talking to a stranger. It didn’t matter that the conversation was a bit disagreeable. Earlier, I had been to the bank and the gas station without ever uttering a word. Instead, I exchanged greetings with an ATM machine and a stinky gas pump.

So to restore my sanity, I drove to the library for a friendly chat with the librarian, someone my kids grew up with, someone who encouraged them to read. Finally, I would talk to a real person.


Instead, swarms of toddlers were happily swiping their books below a computer screen for a quick and efficient check out. Automation had found its way into one of the last bastions of social interaction.

Small talk must be on the decline. Last year the local grocery store had one automated aisle; today, there are four. Sure it’s fun to see the Gatorade bounce down the conveyor belt, but where I come from (as is the case for a lot of suburban and small-town residents), cashiers are some of the friendliest people around. Why would we want to give them up?

Critics of Facebook tell us to shun social media for more face-to-face conversations, but, unfortunately, our offline world now mimics our online world. We talk only to those who are just like us – our age group, our economic level, our friends, and our colleagues. And there’s a lot less of that conversation taking place now, too.

What suffers when we start to turn away from human contact in our daily transactions? In such a polarized political climate, don’t we need, now more than ever, to be trading stories with those outside our immediate circle? Or should efficiency be our only goal? Maybe customers should wait in line a bit longer in order to hear from the woman bagging groceries, about how her husband was recently laid off and how she was forced to take this job.

“I really, really, really miss the people,” said a librarian from a suburban library. “I miss teasing them, and they miss my teasing.”

Businesses get it. Trader Joe’s has long extolled its chatty cashiers, in contrast to the flat-screen TVs some of its rivals have installed at the beginning of store checkout lines. And Ally Bank recently launched its “People Sense” ad campaign. “Talk to a live person 24/7 just by pressing 0 and see why we have over 90 percent customer satisfaction,” the ad notes.

“Why don’t you hold a flash mob as a protest,” suggested my daughter when she heard that her favorite librarian was relegated to the back office and was not at the checkout desk talking to a young patron about “Little House on the Prairie.”

Small Talkers Unite! Refuse to use the machine when there is a working person available. Let’s bring back the ghosts of the past – the gas station attendant, the toll-way ticket takers, the live operator.

Back at the grocery store, a group of older people sits on a bench between a noisy machine that counts coins and the fluorescent lights of a quick service bank. They sip free cups of coffee that the store provides.

“Do you cook this roast on high or low?” one elderly woman asks the cashier, as she gets up from the bench and pushes her cart through the check-out aisle.

Who will she talk to when all the cashiers are gone?

Janine Wood is a freelance writer.

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