On Interactions – Social and Otherwise


The girl at the GS 25 has long dark hair and a pair of glasses with thick black rims.  We’ve gotten used to each other, since we see each other every day.  She knows what cigarettes I smoke, understands that my Korean vocabulary is limited, and isn’t offended (or at least she doesn’t seem to be) that I forget to touch my elbow when I hand her money.  Sometimes I wonder what she thinks when I come in.  I buy the same stuff every day: a bottle of green tea, some noodles, and a cheap pastry to eat for breakfast.  It’s an uncomplicated order completed with a simple transaction.  Her facial expression rarely changes, words are rarely spoken, and we both know to wave politely when it’s over.

Back in America, I used to get looks from strangers when I’d speak l0udly to the checkout operator.  The irony is that the checkout girl I say so little to in Korea is actually a person, while the checkout operator I’d speak to in America was an automated kiosk.  I don’t understand how the majority of Harris Teeter or Bloom customers can refrain from answering when the robotic voice of the self-checkout machine addresses them.  For me, it would happen almost unconsciously:  “Welcome” “Same to you!” “Please place your items in the bag.”  “Hold up, give me a second.” “Please place your items in the bag.”  “I am, I am!”  “Remember to take your receipt.”  “Well print it already and I’ll take it!” “Thank you for shopping at Bloom.” “You’re welcome – bye!”

From the first time I used self-checkout at a gas station, I was in love.  No more having to chit-chat with the dopey gas station attendant.  The appearance of self-checkout at the grocery store was like a dream come true to me.  It was as if I was emancipated, freed from the constraints of the typical grocery shopping experience.  I could buy whatever crap I wanted to, and didn’t have to dodge the eyes of the check-out girl.  DiGiorno Pizza every night for a week?  Yes, it could happen.  Enormous family pack of toilet paper?  They’ll never know!  If I wanted to buy a random grouping of odd items – say Bacos, Hot Pockets, and Acne Scrub – I could do so in complete and wonderful anonymity.

My ardor for self-checkout would only increase.  In moments of boredom, I found myself reading about it on the Internet and then, later, talking about it.  “Hey,” I’d say to a friend, “did you know those grocery store self-checkout machines were made by the same guy who did Atari?”  For two years I even had my English class read an article about self-serve kiosks and discuss all the business advantages: faster customer service, less staff to hire, an end to wrong orders, and (the most important one) people tend to go for upselling more frequently when it’s pitched by a machine.  That’s the most interesting one – the shame of Supersizing apparently changes to joy when the consumer doesn’t have to request it from a thinking, judging human being.

But the glories of self-checkout have not spread to South Korea yet (as far as I know – although they do have it in the movie theatre).  When I make a trip to Home Plus or the GS 25, my safe and impartial machines are nowhere to be found.  Instead there’s the impartial young girl with the black-rimmed glasses.  She seems happy with her work, apparently unaware that across the ocean people like her are being replaced, because people like me are too uncertain of strangers, even if they smile politely when they wave goodbye.