There was a time, after self-service checkouts were first introduced to supermarkets, that you would walk into your nearest branch of whichever one and enter a nightmarish auditory realm, as maybe a dozen of these machines would be chanting and echoing their pre-recorded messages in not-quite unison: Th-th-thank you for sh-sh-shopping at S-S-Sainsburys" (or wherever).
If you rarely saw the same staff members more than two or three times, you assumed it was because they'd gone insane from the hell's-fairground-theme bombardment and ended their misery by chain-swallowing ketchup bottles in aisle three.
Thankfully, most of these checkout machines seem to have been muted now, but that only throws an even starker light on the plight of their squishier counterparts: checkout people.
Stopping off at an M&S in St Pancras station at about half eleven last night after a day of talks, a two-hour flight, a connecting bus, a train and before my tube, the only person who seemed wearier than me was the solitary woman on the checkout, with bags under her eyes bigger than those under her counter.
I knew how she professed to be feeling, because when each of the seven or so people ahead of me in the queue reached her till, she would ask them how they were, and they, each wanting to be polite, would, after first dutifully delivering the obligatory "Fine thanks", ask her the same question in return. And she, of course, would have to respond: "I'm fine, thank you."
Was she fine? This woman, being made to parrot this same customer-service babble every 30 seconds, hour after hour until midnight or beyond?
I greatly doubted it.
Until last night, I'd always thought I was being nice in reciprocating when checkout staff ask me how I'm doing. Sure, I knew they were unable to answer truthfully - "I'm shit thanks, I have a killer hangover and I'd rather be in the bath" - but I still smugly thought I was a better person than anyone who didn't ask.
Last night, having heard this woman say she was fine thank you seven times in the space of four minutes, I, when my turn at the checkout came, said "Hi" but, when asked how I was doing, said nothing in response. Not even "Fine, thanks": nothing.
I won't pretend that she looked at me gratefully and we shared a moment. She didn't, we didn't. She just carried on looking tired and scanned my mini roll selection. If she thought anything at all, it was probably "Fuck you, dickhead".
But I didn't care then, and I don't care now. I stand by my taciturnity. Why, when supermarkets have taken pity on shoppers and staff in one sense and silenced self-checkout machines, do they still insist on forcing staff to engage in phony niceries?
If a shop is quiet, it can be nice and even genuine to pass the time of day in a friendly exchange. But near midnight on a Friday in the middle of a train station when everyone would rather be in bed, hello and thanks are all that's needed.