Small-town America, the early 1940s: A mother strolls to the grocery store with her baby fussing in the pram. By the time the mother gets to the store, the baby falls asleep. Unwilling to wake the child, the mother parks the pram outside next to all of the other prams containing sleeping babes and goes in to shop. An hour later, the mother is home unpacking her groceries when she realizes she's forgotten her pram back at the store. There's also the child to consider. Mildly annoyed with herself, she walks back and retrieves her (still-sleeping) offspring [source: Morrison].
It's an inconceivable scenario today when you could even get arrested for leaving your sleeping kid outside in a stroller while eating in a restaurant [source: Ojito]. If nothing else, the grocery-store anecdote illustrates one very important point: Etiquette is fluid. Social norms are in constant flux from era to era and region to region. But that's no reason to throw up our hands and stop trying to impose some basic decency on ourselves and those around us. To that end, here are 10 highly provisional rules for shopping at the grocery store in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Maybe it's a particular kind of balsamic vinegar, or maybe it's the only kind of cat litter your feline will deign to use. The point is, when it's not there — and you've been looking forward to it for days, and you've set aside some precious time to shop, and you're not sure when you'll be able to squeeze in another trip to the grocery store, and you're stressed by all the rude shoppers banging around in shopping carts and/or yelling at their kids to stop harassing them for toxic-looking sugar products — it's really hard not to button-hole a stocking clerk to give him a piece of your mind.
When this urge rears its ugly head, just try to recall two things:
One, just because the stocking clerk is on the front lines, clearly placed there as minimum-wage cannon fodder for disgruntled clients, that doesn't mean you should release all your pent-up rage about humanity and the tyranny of the material world at him. The target is too easy.
Secondly, you catch more flies with honey. This is a hard one to remember, but it's really true. An ingratiating smile and a few soft words of encouragement to the manager to order more stock will have a far happier result than a hissy fit in aisle three.
First, let's start by giving credit where credit is due: Plastic bags (the ones they give you at checkout) are, in many ways, awesome. Lightweight and extremely scrunch-able, they're still strong enough to carry heavyweight cartons of milk, frozen fish and that candy bar you're buying to reward yourself for going through the painful process of shopping. On top of that, they're always there, at the counter, waiting to be stuffed with your items. No need to remember, on top of your shopping list, to bring the flotilla of grimy sacks you've been accumulating in your closet.
There are just so many ways to forget those bags of yours — first, after you put away groceries at home, you have to consolidate them and store them somewhere so they don't pollute your living space. Then, before the next trip to the store you have to unearth them again, and when you get to the checkout line you have to be fast enough to outdraw the cashiers. Over time, these pros have honed to a blinding speed their ability to open a new plastic bag and start filling it before you've had a chance to put down that rag with the headlines shouting about the latest alien abduction of the royal family.
Plastic bags are pernicious, and for reasons too complicated to enumerate, a lot of them seem to end up joining the estimated 269,000 tons (244,033 metric tons) of plastic currently swirling around in the ocean, getting accidentally ingested by sea life and generally wreaking havoc on the ecosystem [source: Schwartz]. So, you know, just bring your own bags — it's not that hard. Do it for the fish.
These days, there's an ongoing debate about where and when one should be expected to put up with other people's kids. It's easy to see why: Very young humans are as annoying as they are charming. In an environment like a supermarket, where you're trying to get as much done as quickly as possible, children introduce an unwelcome element of chaos. You have to dodge your cart around them as they run hither and thither grabbing stuff off the shelves, smashing ketchup bottles on the floor, emptying detergent everywhere and poking holes in all the peaches.
Why, you wonder through gritted teeth, don't their parents keep them in those child seats that are such an integral element of shopping cart design?
They may have tried.
Some kids are docile, some are not. And as often as not, it has little or nothing to do with the parents' parenting skills or lack thereof. The wild child will crawl out and down to scamper the aisles. If you strap them in, they scream bloody murder nonstop for the entire duration of the shopping trip. Where you see crazed children shutting themselves inside ice-cream freezers or toppling soup can displays, you're sure to find a parent with a broken spirit shuffling behind.
So why bring the demon child to the store in the first place? The answer to that strays deep into the political arena where questions about affordable childcare lurk. We'll let that sleeping dog lie. The point is, yes, parents should do their best to civilize their kids, but the rest of us should try to substitute empathy for eye-rolling when we see them fail.
Ok, all due sympathy to modern parents who can no longer resort to corporal punishment, but that doesn't mean they don't have to answer for the bad behavior of their scions. A toddler marching down an aisle brazenly ripping open a bag of chips and stuffing her face with it, or somehow bypassing the safety seal on a bottle of chocolate milk and chugging the contents, cannot be allowed to walk away from her crimes scot-free. Or, at least, her parents can't. Somebody's got to pay.
The subtler the offense, the more likely a caregiver is to try to disguise what happened. "I can re-wrap this chocolate bar, place it carefully back on the shelf and nobody will be the wiser," goes the thinking. Or, "A few finger holes in cellophane don't count. Those mushrooms could use more ventilation." This is slippery-slope thinking. Where does it stop?
No, whether you're an adult or an ankle-biter, if you open something, you must pay.
We've all done it. After all, the aisles are narrow, and the carts are large. Making an abrupt U-turn because you just remembered to pick up that really effective cat litter in aisle three, your coat grazes a high-end zinfandel on display, and suddenly there's precious red fluid pooling around shattered glass on the floor. Looking around, you see that you're temporarily alone, and if you move fast enough you might be able to clear out before anybody notices. You scan for security cameras while calculating whether some overeager manager might be willing to examine hours of footage to find that jerk who left the scene of a wine spill, when a clerk materializes.
Do you: A.) Try to pretend it wasn't you while strolling away and shaking your head with disapproval; B.) Ask for a mop and offer to pay; or C.) Rant that the display was asking to be knocked over and that you're a victim of circumstance. (Hint: the answer is neither A nor C.)
This one's simple, but super hard to remember: Judge not, lest others bla-bla-bla...
Say, for instance, you see a shopping cart groaning with the weight of a dozen frozen dinners, prepared meats in bulk quantities, giant bottles of soft drinks and voluminous boxes of fluorescent cereals. Here, you think to yourself, is a recipe for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Doesn't this shopper know about the carcinogens in prepared foods, about how unsustainable factory farming is, about the evils of soda pop?
Meanwhile, said shopper is casting a jaundiced eye on your cart and mentally tallying up the cost of your choices. Doesn't that person know, they're thinking, that so-called organic products are no more nutritious than conventional ones? Don't they know that all those supposedly healthy foodstuffs are really just packaged status symbols advertising their consumers' socioeconomic privilege? It must be nice to have that much money to throw away, and even nicer to have the time to cook from scratch with fresh produce instead of arriving home exhausted from a full day of dispiriting, low-paid labor to find your kids howling for dinner.
Listen, shopping is a pain and we're all in it together. Better to nod to one another in commiseration than deconstruct the consumer habits of strangers.
In this, the digital age, everything is being steadily optimized for maximum efficiency. There was a time when cashiers laboriously entered the price of each item into their registers and tallied up the total. They then waited patiently while the customer wrote the amount on a check in longhand (maybe even in that ancient script known as cursive) and recorded the transaction in her log.
Nowadays, lasers read the bar codes of product after product, barely giving you time to brace yourself for the shocking total before you slip a little piece of plastic into a waiting slot, key in a code and pretend it's all free.
But some people are old school. Some people still use checks. More often than not, these luddites are old hands at the practice and they have everything all filled out except for the total (or at least they should). That's just good manners, and in such cases the transaction will take no longer than would a credit card payment.
But if, for some reason, the process drags on and on and you're standing there waiting and feeling like your feet are going to fall off, just remember that while the person in front of you hasn't figured out debit cards yet, at least he's not living on credit. And that deserves the same respect and patience as any other customer (unless he's planning to bounce that check).
It's an oft-cited irony of modernity that the more labor-saving devices we invent and acquire, the busier and more stressed we are. This is never more evident than at the grocery store. With all the other demands on your time, from work to family to social engagements, shopping for food can feel like a burdensome chore to get over as quickly as possible. Stores don't help with their blinding overhead lighting, aggressive marketing and constant relocation of items to keep you from sticking to your budget.
So the last thing you need in this purgatory is to run into somebody you know. Stopping to exchange anemic pleasantries and empty platitudes in the produce section is only going to prolong your mutual misery. Small talk under these circumstances is unavoidably awkward, plus you're clogging the aisles.
Twentieth-century etiquette bullied us into politely exchanging chitchat in some misguided attempt to keep the social fabric intact. Let's update that idea. Small talk has its place (parks, public transportation, waiting rooms), and that place is not the grocery store. When you're shopping, 21st century etiquette demands you pretend not to see the other person. You'll be doing yourself, and her, a favor and she knows it. In fact, she'll avoid making eye contact for the same, unspoken reason (i.e., let's just get through this, and if we cross paths in the park later we can talk). Don't stop — duck down and roll on [source: Dowling].
A cart is a wheeled vehicle. As such, the rules that apply to the drivers of cars and bicycles should also apply to shoppers. If you're going to text somebody a question about whether to get mild, medium or spicy salsa for the community theater after-party, pull your cart over to a spot where you won't be in the way and stop moving. The same rule applies when receiving texts — just pull over! Other shoppers have enough to worry about, what with dodging and weaving to avoid familiar faces, mopping up spilled wine, shepherding bestial toddlers and making sure the pile of shopping bags they brought doesn't fall out of the cart. The last thing they need are distracted shoppers weaving down the aisles with their eyes glued to their smartphones.
That said, judicious use of texting can save a relationship. If you're using a shopping list written by a partner and see something about potato chips, it's far better to determine precisely what flavor he wanted than risk the seething cauldron of disapproval that would greet you upon return had you made an executive decision and grabbed the ones that taste kind of like ketchup when what he really wanted was sour cream and onion.
The documentary "Carts of Darkness" follows the exploits of a group of hotheaded homeless guys whose favorite pastime is to go bombing down the hills of North Vancouver, British Columbia, on shopping carts. Dangerous, subversive and incredibly fun, this is the kind of low-tech, no-rent extreme sport that your cart can be subjected to if you don't take the extra few seconds to bring it back to its station when you're done using it. Carts are designed to trundle placidly over polished tiles; they're not made to clock high velocity runs that include underhanded racing shenanigans worthy of "Ben-Hur." The carts in question have a short shelf life. Suffice it to say, there are no pit stops in the world of cart-racing.
Less spectacularly, if you leave your cart in the middle of a parking lot on the theory that some poor store employee will be forced to retrieve it, you're right — one of them will. But in the meantime, you're adding more clutter to the already difficult terrain of the parking lot. Also, you're increasing the odds that it'll get stolen by a joyrider. Don't let it become another cart of darkness.
Merriam-Webster has added 850 words to its online dictionary. Learn more about new words for 2018 in this HowStuffWorks article.
Author's Note: 10 Grocery Store Etiquette Rules
Before we moved recently, I used to find shopping with my kids stressful. They both wanted to sit in the designated child seat, but they couldn't both fit there. So the older one bundled himself into the lower section of the cart. This was fine for a while, but then they would want to switch spots mid-shop or climb down and scamper off into the maze of aisles screaming at the top of their lungs. Thankfully, our new local grocery store has an ingenious solution to this problem: toddler-sized carts. My two little demons have become model shoppers, carefully guiding their personal carts, which I load down with all my unbreakable purchases. So far, so good.
More Great Links
- Asghar, Rob. "27 Etiquette Rules for Our Times." Forbes. April, 22, 2014. (March 24, 2015) http://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/04/22/27-etiquette-rules-for-our-times/
- Curtin, Michael. "A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy." The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 57, No. 3. 396-423. 1985. (March 28, 2015) http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1879686?sid=21105806027351&uid=3739448&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3737720
- Dowling, Tim. "Supermarket Etiquette: A Guide to Modern Manners." The Guardian. July 3, 2013. (March 28, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2013/jul/03/supermarket-etiquette-guide-to-modern-manners
- Drenten, Jenna et al. "An exploratory investigation of the dramatic play of preschool children within a grocery store shopping context." International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management. Vol. 36, Iss. 10. 831-855. 2008. (March 28, 2015) http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/09590550810901017
- Morrison, Amy. "Why You're Not Failing as a Mother." Pregnant Chicken. Nov. 9, 2012. (March 30, 2015) http://www.pregnantchicken.com/pregnant-chicken-blog/2012/11/9/why-youre-never-failing-as-a-mother
- Nakládalová, Renata. "A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Social and Business Etiquette in the United States of America and China." 2011. (March 28, 2015) http://digilib.k.utb.cz/bitstream/handle/10563/19872/nakládalová_2012_bp.pdf?sequence=1
- Ojito, Mirta. "Danish Mother Is Reunited With Her Baby." The New York Times. May 15, 1997. (April 2, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/1997/05/15/nyregion/danish-mother-is-reunited-with-her-baby.html
- Schwartz, John. "Study Gauges Plastic Level in Oceans." The New York Times. Dec. 10, 2014. (April 2, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/11/science/new-research-quantifies-the-oceans-plastic-problem.html
- Siple, Murray. "Carts of Darkness." National Film Board of Canada. 2008. (April 2, 2015) https://www.nfb.ca/film/carts_of_darkness/
- Wouters, Cas. "Etiquette books and emotion management in the 20th century: Part one: The integration of social classes." Journal of Social History. Vol. 29, No. 1. 107-124. 1995. (April 2, 2015) http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3788711?sid=21105806027351&uid=3737720&uid=2&uid=3739448&uid=4