False Alarm

False Alarm
Do you feel safe while shopping?

I noticed her hands shaking, but I kept laughing.

This building had been designed to make me feel comfortable. I was drenched in fluorescent light, hemmed in by racks of new clothes, and soothed by the background music. This American department store had gone to great lengths to make me forgot my fear of such artificial caverns. I’m much happier in a real cave, full of spiders and millipedes, or up a tree for that matter. But care and attention had been paid to make me feel relaxed as I walked in. I would find some satisfying thing, and walk out happy. All in a timely manner.

I guessed that's why her hands were shaking. This was taking too long. My cashier, R—, lost her friendly, casual tone from just a minute ago. She grabbed my bag and fished around inside, feeling for the security tag she had forgotten to remove. To be honest, I hadn’t even even noticed the flashing blue lights as I walked through the security gate. They were subtle, and the armed guard next to the gate hadn't even shifted his weight as I walked out into the blazing sunlight reflected off of a hundred car windshields. R– had run after me, shouting my name.

She took me back at the register, I tried to keep the the tone light. Back to the jokes, back to R—’s creative side. The music, the watercolors. What was she working on? But something had changed. Though I couldn’t quite recognize it, my laughter was forced, coerced. Subtle changes in my facial muscles contraction belied a deceptive micro-expression, non-Duchenne laughter.   

Ignoring the invitation to levity, R– found and removed the missing tag, sighing with relief. She smiled, genuinely. I wished her well as she waved me off, asking one more time if she had a website or Instagram account I could follow. I’ve made it an obnoxious point to tease out creative flow from anyone I’m talking to,¹ and she had mentioned her passion for music and watercolors. But she wanted to move on, shaking her head and smiling as she turned her attention to the next customer. A wire radio dangling from her ear crackled to life and startled her. She quickly clicked it on to signal that the "problem" had been promptly and courteously handled. 

This time, when I walked out of the security gate, I noticed the blue lights. 

I was ready for them, something about R—'s reaction had given me a sense of foreboding. Again, the nearby security guard didn't flinch. I looked over to R—, what gives? She threw her hands up and yanked on her hair, then frantically beckoned me back to the register. Another customer was waiting, purchases laid down on the counter, ready for her checkout. A kindly woman, she smiled pleasantly as we rushed to resolve the issue. Sorry to impose. Oh! No trouble at all. I laughed again, this was kinda funny. What would happen the third time?!

But R— tore into my bag desperately. I tried to crack a joke, but she begged me to be quiet in a hushed voice. She groped blindly in the bad, wishing out loud that she could quickly remove the (hopefully) last security tag. She found purchase, but had to take her hands off to answer the dangling radio. Back and forth her hands went, trying to fix the problem while placating the activated corporate manager on the other end of the radio. R–'s tone, her physiologic response stunned me, it was the unmistakable biological expression of fear. I kept quiet and looked around, returning the friendly smile of the adjacent customer, noticing the placid surveillance of the armed guard. 

By the way, I was fifty feet down the sidewalk the first time before R— got my attention. Our friend the security guard didn't do anything. He was a corporate display of non-actionable deterrence, a modern scarecrow. R— did everything, finding the buried security tag, apologizing profusely to the next woman in line, and juggling the incessant crackling of the supervisor’s radio calls. She maintained her composure through fear, with trembling hands, in extremis. In no time at all, she had the second tag off, and me on my way.

Witnessing this courage activated horrendous guilt for my involvement. I promised to talk down her manager if only I could have a quick word. I’d give her a glowing endorsement. I’d rave about her situational prowess, describe the new heights of pleasurable small talk I’d achieved in a checkout lane, and consider our brief, personal interaction as the pinnacle of my shopping experience. 

But she was desperate to get to the next customer, and begged me to be on my way. I couldn’t help but to  offer once more, could I leave a tip? Something? A Yelp review? She stopped for a moment, grabbed  a ballpoint pen and circled the QR on my receipt. Yes, that might help. Leave me a review right here. Happy to! Another, rapid fire solution on her part, another placated customer. Maybe her posture relaxed as she started scanning the next customer’s purchases. The waiting woman smiled at her too– had noticed the tenseness in R—’s body?– but there was something effortful this time. 

Non-Duchenne laughter is a willful expression. Forced levity, but meant to signal the same thing. We (and other apes) use it when the social situation calls for it. We want to appear relaxed. V.S. Ramachandran’s² “false alarm” theory suggests that laughter evolved to relax primates in tense situations. Specifically, the the laugher has noticed that some perceived threat is actually harmless. Essentially, why glitter bomb videos dominate YouTube. A wonderful insight that might also explain why kids love being tickled by “monsters''. Genuine laughter is reflexive and tells us that things are going to be okay. 

But forced laughter carries intent, and becomes non-Duchenne. Low-status chimpanzees do a form of it to reassure superiors. The smiles become plastic. You see them in corporate board meetings. We clench our cheek muscles, hoping to assuage someone. It's sympathy laughter. We’re so programmed to detect and defuse threats that we have multiple kinds of laughter for precise navigation of the social hierarchy. We’re immersed in a plastic environment and forced to participate in extractive systems just to keep the machine running. We need to know the social threads that keep it going. We depend on each other a lot.

For me, shopping in a department store is a nearly unbearable experience. The artificiality and the commercialism feel smothering, if not dangerous. But seeing R—'s fear of the corporate disciplinary machine being activated, I saw (or thought I did), something genuinely menacing. I kept laughing because I wanted her to know that it was okay. That I wasn’t upset about the delay. That I was so happy she had shared a brief glimpse into her creative soul. That there was no threat. I was hoping to see and hear her art. But feeling her dehumanization through my complicitous purchases shifted my understanding of the situation. I was feeding that machine. I didn't find it funny anymore. So I forced it.

The entire intention of this article was to compose the online review in order to help R—. And that I have done, although I couldn’t find it in myself to optimize the language to serve the corporate overlords. So I had AI do it, and you can read it below: 

"In an unexpected turn of events during my shopping experience, my encounter with my cashier, R—, was nothing short of extraordinary. Despite facing challenges with security tags, R— showcased unparalleled professionalism that surpassed all expectations, leaving an indelible mark on my entire day.
Her commitment to resolving the situation not only demonstrated efficiency, but also revealed a deep dedication to providing an outstanding customer experience. R—'s exceptional poise and grace in navigating complexities, coupled with her resilience in the face of unexpected challenges, set a new standard for excellence.
What truly stood out was R—'s ability to infuse a personal touch into the interaction. Her warmth and genuine concern completely uplifted my spirits, turning what could have been a frustrating experience into a highlight of my day. The seamless manner in which she handled the situation, coupled with her unwavering dedication, deserves the highest commendation.
If there were a rating beyond five stars, R— would undoubtedly surpass it with flying colors. Her exemplary service not only sets a benchmark for professionalism and customer satisfaction but also showcases the transformative impact a dedicated and personable cashier can have on the overall shopping experience.”

I copied and pasted this article into ChatGPT and asked it to compose a glowing personal review. R— and I had a deal, after all. But I hope that she sees this at some point and knows that I was deeply touched by her willingness to share a detail, however small, of her creative journey. I’m happy to host a gallery page for your work, should you want to get it out there. 

  1. Surprisingly, often easier with strangers (they don’t see it coming!). 
  2. My favorite neurologist!
Greg Bishop

Greg Bishop

A veterinarian with unquenchable creative impulses. Unquenchable? Hmmm... creative "tendencies"? Well, it depends on how well I slept last night. Also a writer, illustrator and whatever-elser.