Thursday, May 5, 2011


The grocery store that I typically shop at has a rather peculiar way of labeling things. Well, sort of. As you may have seen in whatever grocery stores you frequent, our local market has a small space in which they make a note of a "unit price," how much you're playing per pound or per quart, whatever. Okay, so far so good. But what I noticed some time back was that the store didn't always use the same units. For instance, in the refrigerated drinks section (from which I was picking up some orange juice), some items have their unit prices listed per pint, while others are listed per liter. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this... One size of orange juice was listed per pint, while the same size apple juice and the larger size of orange juice of the same brand was listed per liter. To me, this defeats the whole purpose of the unit pricing. How can you easily compare one size of an item to another if their unit prices are delineated in different units?

I wound up taking to four different employees of the store about this fact (they seemed to travel in pairs today), and it struck me that only one of them seemed to immediately understand what I was talking about, and why it didn't make much sense to do things in that way. In fact, only the one employee seemed to understand that it was the store that created the labels with the unit prices on them - the others all seemed to think that the various items all came with the unit prices already determined.

It's easy, if uncharitable, to chalk this up to a lack of intellect or education. (Come now, don't tell me that you've never met anyone who's convinced that everyone who works in a grocery store are the dregs of society.) But since I don't really think that being a worker in a grocery store is de facto evidence of stupidity or ignorance myself, I had to come up with a new reason. And it didn't take very long.

Autopilot. We, as Americans, have structured our society so that we don't have to think about a lot of things. Most of the things that we interact with "just work," and we don't spare them a moment's thought. And so when we encounter things that perhaps don't work, we assume that they do work, and just go on about our business. I suppose though, that it might be more accurate to say that when we encounter things that we don't normally deal with, we assume that it does whatever it does for a reason, even if we don't know what that reason is. (In fact, I wouldn't have been able to convince one of the workers that the point behind unit pricing was to be able to make an apples-to-apples price comparison, if the other worker hadn't agreed with me, having noticed the discrepancy herself.)

I'm not going to say that I haven't done the same thing, myself, when I've encountered things that just don't seem quite right. Sometimes, I simply walk past it on Autopilot, assuming that it's doing what it supposed to do, rather than tracking someone down, and asking them: "Is that supposed to do that?" But it's a bad habit. If for no other reason than asking people about things can be an excellent way to learn something new. And sometimes, things aren't doing what they're supposed to do, and it needed bringing to someone's attention to have it taken care of.

It's all about engagement, really. And sometimes, I'm sure that we could all do with a little more engagement.

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