Posted in Writing

Advice from a Polyglot

imageYesterday I asked my co-worker Shawky where he’s from. He was born in Cairo, he answered, and grew up in Greece—and he used to work on ships, visiting 89 countries and acquiring six languages. Apparently Home Depot doesn’t have an “I speak Romanian” badge, because that’s the only one he’s missing.

I joked that he probably doesn’t have much call for that here, but wouldn’t you know—not half an hour later a customer made a beeline for his register, greeted him by name, and started chatting him up in (you guessed it) Romanian.

One of our mandates as cashiers is to get customers to sign up for the Home Depot credit card. While most cashiers got a handful, or maybe a dozen, apps in the last month, Shawky had a stunning 111 credit card applications. While I worked the register next to him yesterday, I watched him sign up three more people as smooth as you please.

I teased him about his “magic” but asked him in earnest what advice he would give me to help the magic rub off on me.  He answered me very seriously, in his accented but impeccable English. “Listen. I will tell you. You must have absolute confidence. Don’t say so much. Choose what you say,”

Shawky the polyglot

Ten minutes later I was signing someone up for a credit card.

With so many words at his disposal, Shawky’s advice is to steward your words. (Is that stewordship?)

I think it’s advice that reaches beyond the cash-register role, and I think he meant it so. I’m thinking about how many “meaningless” things we say in the course of a day, out of habit or social custom. And I notice that Shawky doesn’t indulge in those, even at the register. It’s easy just to ask “how’s your day going?” but Shawky speaks specifically to the items each customer is purchasing, and the projects they’re undertaking. At the juncture where I ask (inanely) if the items I’ve rung up will “do it” for the day, Shawky is enrolling yet another person for a credit card. He uses his words to a purpose.

how are youI use words thoughtfully when I write, but I fall back too often on habitual “social niceties” when I’m speaking in person. It’s purely lazy, and it heads off the possibility of more meaningful exchanges. So I’m taking on Shawky’s insight as a project, starting at the cash register, where I’ll get to practice a few hundred times today. “Choose what you say.” Challenge accepted!


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

7 thoughts on “Advice from a Polyglot

  1. Truly enjoy when our encounters with those around us has a way of opening our eyes to something in a new and meaningful way. Thanks for sharing this one. Interesting advice.


  2. He sounds like an interesting person. That’s good advice too. My standards for customer service are pretty low… I’m happy if the person doesn’t act like I’m a bother when i go pay for stuff and can manage something vaguely resembling a smile :)


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