– a 14 day social experiment –
They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
So, I went to the same convenience store, at the same time of day, every day, ordered the same thing and expected different results.
Am I insane? Not quite. Not yet, at least. I was challenged by Tokyo Survival Channel to try forming a relationship with the nearest convenience store staff, so when I walk in they know me and know exactly what I’m buying! I’m not sure about my chances of success—I’ve been a faithful conbini patron for years and that has never happened.
The conbini is a special place, maybe a void, maybe a purgatory, definitely a safe haven, and most definitely a 24/7 blessing. It is a constant we can always count on, but nothing is really constant inside of it. Well, I’m going to try and be that constant for the staff, visiting them every day and see when will the senpais notice me!
The Diary of a Homo (Convenience) Sapiens
The start is crucial. Whatever order I was going to make, I would have to stick with it for 14 days.
Balance was important – I wanted to have a complicated enough order to be remembered, but not too complicated that I became a nightmare. If you are a nightmare, even if they remember you, you won’t establish a connection.
So, I strolled in the conbini straight to the register and there was … no one. But seconds later a harried conbini clerk darted out from an unseen room, the perfect scene from a sitcom. Hai, omataseshimashita!
I ordered coffee, but not your basic stuff, I wanted to know if they did double espresso shots. She pointed to the double espresso latte, down the list, I assume not the usual choice. A good start. Then, I asked for 3 sticks of sugar, which often causes people to raise an eyebrow. And for the final critical hit that should make me the talk of the conbini – I insisted on no plastic lid.
My local conbini is one of those where the clerk has to make your coffee, add sugar and cream, and hand it over to you. So the chances of being remembered for your order are higher. She made the coffee and almost put the lid on, and in a split second remembered not to. We even exchanged smiles, and I apologized for having a complicated coffee order.
It’s raining today. Getting a hot double espresso latte would be perfect. I decided to always buy it around 5 pm, the neighbourhood 5 o’clock chime reminding me in case I ever forget. Peeking into the conbini, I see it’s not the same clerk from yesterday. Instead of the young genki girl, there’s a calm middle-aged ojisan. So I had to leave an impression on him too. I made a point of confirming that there was a double shot espresso latte (I know there is), underlining my three sticks of sugar demand (he did not flinch), and the no lid finisher (no reaction). He made the latte perfectly, remembering everything. I had to think quickly on my feet to leave an impression, so I just mumbled about the cup being kawaii. I think I saw a smile. I think. He was already going back to the counter. What a perfect emotionless marble statue of a man.
All in all, it was good. I am settling slowly in this routine.
I was looking forward to this daily 5pm outing, not expecting it will snow at the end of March! I dug out my winter clothes and shlepped to the conbini. There was no one again, no conbini clerk. “Sumimasen!” Oh, it’s the same guy from yesterday. I think I saw a glimmer of recognition from yesterday and as I started firing away my detailed coffee order I think that glimmer shone more brightly. But no confirmation, as expected this early in my social experiment.
Today it’s the genki girl again! I decided I’m calling her Genki Girl, and the guy from yesterday is Mister Mild. I want to think she remembered me, but it’s too soon for conclusions.
I’m reading the much praised bestseller “Conbini Ningen” (“Convenience Store Woman”) by Sayaka Murata, peering into the life of a conbini clerk. The book opens with the protagonist being so attuned to the conbini that she even predicts what the customers will want before they know it themselves; what a jingle in a pocket means or what a slow look leads to.
I was also thinking – when will I get bored of this coffee order? I am a creature swinging between the go-to things I like, and trying ALL THE NEW THINGS. If it gets hotter, will I crave an iced latte?
Hello Genki Girl! I think she definitely recognized me. But I believe the customer service standards of conbini are more about firing away scripted phrases, than chit-chatting with customers. So, the question is – will she ever show she recognizes me? Will her work manual allow it? Is this endeavour doomed to fail?
When I was saying “3 sticks of sugar” I decided to add “as usual.” She just said “hai!” (yes). Well, that can mean anything. At the end, I tried the same trick as with Mister Mild, I complimented the cuteness of the cup. Genki Girl chuckled at that.
Worst day so far. It was pouring and someone stole my umbrella while I was in the conbini. I had a raincoat on, though. In the conbini, a third character in this story appeared. A non-Japanese guy I’m dubbing Gaikoku Guy, or just GG. GG was confused by the coffee machine, so he called for help.
Genki Girl (can also be shortened to GG, I now realize) appeared, and I think I saw some signs of recognition. She seemed to have different duties today though, so she just helped GG with instructions. GG made my coffee, double-checked if I REALLY wanted three sticks of sugar, aaaand….. I forgot to say the ‘no lid’ part. My bad. Finding my umbrella was stolen, it seemed really lucky I forgot and had the lid on. I arrived home soaking wet.
Today was good – no stolen umbrellas. I waltzed in the conbini to find a fourth character in this little drama – an older lady I have dubbed simply Auntie. I started firing away my order, but Auntie was just as confused as GG yesterday, and who does she call? That’s right – enter Genki Girl. At this point, Genki Girl already starts making my coffee and when she hands it to me she starts just chuckling. I am 99% sure she knows me and my coffee well, but she’s not sure whether to say anything. I chuckle as well. I think soon I’ll need to try ordering my coffee as “the usual, please” (“itsumo no”) and see what happens. If the conbini doesn’t allow them to be too familiar, it must be OK to be even more efficient by knowing a regular customer’s order!
I also have an idea about avoiding the sameness of the coffee. Taking the coffee home I can add stuff to it like cinnamon/rum/vanilla and so on to get a different flavour. That way I still have the same order, but not get bored of it.
Another sunny day, another chance to stretch my legs and get my 5 o’clock coffee. I did not expect a fifth character in the conbini so soon! The Genki Guy, another GG. I was a bit disheartened that I needed to leave a first time impression all over again – how does one become a regular customer if the staff isn’t regularly there? Anyway, G Guy got my order quickly, perfectly, easily. Sounds great, but tripping up would have meant higher chances of remembering me as the quirky local 3-sugars no-lid gaijin girl-jin. Oh, well… There’s always tomorrow.
Tomorrow turned into today, I dyed my hair tips red and made it to the conbini. Because going out for coffee is kinda becoming a big deal for me! Are you ready for a sixth character in the story? Because I’m not. I’m not even going to come up with a name for him. Just like yesterday, this new guy was quick and efficient to make my coffee with no mistakes. No chit chat. Perfect service for people who want that. I hope that either he remembers me, or he will have no more 5 o’clock shifts.
Hello, Mister Mild! It was good to see a familiar face, even his emotionless one carved in stone. He made that autopilot mistake that conbini people do – forget your order and do things the ‘standard’ way. He put a lid on my cup. I reminded him that I asked for no lid, and he quickly took it off. I hope he remembers me and doesn’t dislike me for having a complicated order. I also hope Genki Girl gets more shifts soon. She’s my best chance at forming a connection.
Some wishes do come true, as today Genki Girl was at the register in the conbini. I decided to test her a bit, so I asked for “itsumo no (the usual), double espresso latte”, and left out the sugar and lid instructions. She said “hai”, and went to turn on the coffee machine.
Now, some wishes don’t come true. I learned this as I heard Genki Girl call someone from the invisible back room to bring more milk, while she went to serve the next customer. A guy appeared, took out my coffee and just handed it to me – no sugar and with a lid. I believe this counts as a fail. Defeated, I took the lidded coffee cup and dragged my feet home.
I am sure Genki Girl knows me. I am not sure if she forgot to give this guy details about my order, or trusted me to give him the remaining details when he took over.
I am just a silver-jacket wearing girl, standing in front of a conbini clerk, asking you to please remember me.
Genki Girl, it’s me, the peculiar neighbour! Yesterday was a fiasco, but let’s try again. I started again with “itsumo no,” and was supposed to leave it at that, but in a split panicked second I added “double espresso latte.” So, same situation like yesterday, checking if she remembers about the sugar and the lid.
Senpai noticed me! It’s official! She said “3 sticks of sugar, right?” I said “yes,” and didn’t mention the lid situation. Genki Girl mixes in the sugar and hands me the lidless cup, as it should be.
I count this as a win. Now, just to see if next time I can go only with “itsumo no.”
DRUM ROLL PLEASE!
I tried the “itsumo no” today. No mention of coffee, no order details, just “give me the usual.”
It was Genki Girl again and it was the moment of truth.
Are you still imagining drum rolls? SILENCE!
She knew what I wanted! She smiled shyly, and went to make the coffee. And then… PLOT TWIST!
Genki Guy jumps out seemingly out of nowhere to take over and help Genki Girl. Noooooo, don’t ruin this for us! But I see her whisper my 3 sugars order to him so he can wrap things up nicely. I received the cup that I wanted, no lid.
I think that settles it. I am now a conbini regular! Riding on that thrill, I decide to act like one, so I go to Genki Girl at the register. I tell her how the coffee is great, but I soon might have to switch to an iced latte as it gets hotter. “Yeah, might be so,” she gives me a vague answer and a smile, and I think maybe that’s all she’s allowed to do. I thank them profusely and leave the place with a spring in my step.
This is the last day of my challenge. I head to the conbini wondering who will be on shift today. I’ve ordered coffee from at least 5 other conbini clerks over these 2 long weeks. If Genki Girl and Genki Guy talked about me with their coworkers, I have a chance to be that regular double espresso girl for all of them. The foreign caffeinated neighbour that comes in wearing bright red.
I walk up and it’s Auntie, the second time I’ve seen her. Just in case, I try acting like a regular. “Ano… itsumo no” (“Umm…. the usual”). Not a shocker, Auntie is confused. She searches with her eyes for help and Genki Girl jumps in telling her that it’s the double espresso latte. We chuckle.
Auntie goes to the coffee machine, just behind Genki Girl’s back, who is serving other customers. I see Genki Girl turn around and explain my sugar situation. Auntie has prepared a lid, but Genki Girl softly slyly puts it back in the lid compartment. And then she lets Auntie hand me the coffee – strong, sugary, lidless. Just right.
Auntie is a caring soul. She says “I mixed it well, but here’s a spoon just in case”. On my last day of trying to become close with the conbini clerks by ordering the same thing, I leave with a slightly altered order. But it’s not a mistake, it’s a sign of care. And that makes a world of a difference.
Now I’m worried what the conbini staff will think when I don’t show up for a while. And I will skip a few days for sure, I need to switch up my coffee. Maybe one day I will pop in around 5pm and ask for my usual. And maybe it will be the ice latte I told Genki Girl I’ll be ordering on a hotter day. Just to switch things up!
Roll the Post Credits Scene
After about 10 days of being suddenly seemingly spirited away from the life of the convenience store, I had to pop in again. Just to let them know I’m OK, because maybe they’re wondering?
I hope it’s Genki Girl’s shift.
Yup, it’s her and she’s happy to see me! A genuine smile on her face!
“Hisashiburi!”(It’s been a long time!) I say, and she says it back. I tell her I’ve bought an espresso machine, so I won’t be coming in as often. Her hands are hovering with the coffee menu in them, now hesitating. “But I’ll still come in sometimes to get this specific coffee!” I add. “Give me the usual double espresso latte, but let’s try the iced one!”
“No lid, right?” she asks.
She hands over the coffee and I tell her I’ll eventually be back. I leave the conbini triumphantly, remembering that when I embarked on this challenge I didn’t believe I would succeed. Not only did I succeed, but I’m not going to let this relationship we’ve built go to waste. See you soon, conbini people!
Sincerely, your caffeinated neighbour.