If you’re shopping in a clothing store and see a pile of shirts on the ground under the clearance rack, what do you do? You probably ignore it, maybe even don’t notice it at all. Not me. It actually takes an exorbitant amount of willpower for me NOT to pick up the shirts and hang them back up, even put them in the correct places on the rack according to size.

I didn’t have this problem until I worked at JCPenney the year after I graduated from college. Though I no longer work there, it pains me to see things out of place in stores. It’s one of the many residual effects of working retail. Others include knowing how to fold shirts and pants well, never going barefoot in fitting rooms, and learning to carry things under my arm when I need both hands free. But the biggest way working retail changed me was how it shifted the way I treat people working in customer service.

Before this, I wasn’t mean or rude, but I didn’t really pay attention to how I acted toward cashiers, sales associates, waiters and waitresses. Now, even if I don’t know exactly what their job entails, I try my best to treat them as I would want to be treated in their situation. I don’t know their story, how long their shift has been, what stressed them out five minutes before I entered their business, how their boss and coworkers are treating them that day. But I do know what it’s like to greet customers with a “Hi, can I help you with anything?” and a smile (something we were required us to do) and be completely ignored or receive a snappy response. I know what it’s like to be yelled at when a certain size couldn’t be found, or when an innocent mistake made a transaction at the cash register take longer than normal.

While it’s true that as an employee, you also don’t know what a customer has been through that day, it’s also their choice to be there. The employee is there because it’s their job. I know of many otherwise kind people who automatically assume the worst about people in customer service as soon as any mistake is made or anything affects them negatively, and use it as an excuse to treat them poorly. Believe me, people in customer service usually have to have much more patience with you than you do with them. It’s only human for you to treat them like humans.

Sure, people in customer service don’t always have good attitudes and they might be intentionally performing poorly at their jobs, but that is more in the minority than the majority.

Soapboxes aside, working retail isn’t the only experience that’s taught me to see the world differently. I try to use the different experiences I’ve had to inform how I treat other people in the same situations I’ve gone through in the past. When I don’t have a frame of reference for a specific circumstance, I try to imagine how it would make me feel and learn what I can about it so I can have the sympathy and compassion that Christ calls me to.

Most people know the golden rule. And I think most people, even those who reject Christianity, would agree that “treat others as you want to be treated” is a good principle to live by. However, I think most people (including me) often forget to apply the golden rule when they can’t empathize with someone else. When we can’t see ourselves in a particular situation someone else is in, it’s difficult for us to treat that person as we would want to be treated, because we don’t know how we’d want to be treated and we don’t let our imaginations explore the uncharted territory. Maybe because we don’t realize we’re doing it. Maybe because we want an excuse to be selfish.

I try to live by a few rules when it comes to sympathy.

First, I try to be polite and kind to everyone I meet, no matter my own circumstances or how they may first appear. (Try is a key word here.) I’ve learned that if you start out being nice and assuming the best of someone, the interaction is far more likely to turn out positive.

Second, I try to use my imagination when it comes to loving my neighbor as myself. Sometimes I read the situation wrong. Sometimes I execute my love poorly. But often, slipping into someone else’s shoes in my mind and going for a quick daydream jog changes everything about how I move forward in reality.

-LC