I’m not sure why everyone is so enraged by the pictures of fighting, shouting and arrests from Black Friday. British people have been exhibiting this sort of behaviour for years, whether it be at the open doors of a shop holding a sale or even trying to get into a Tube carriage (I was elbowed in the stomach on Monday morning by someone who clearly had a very important meeting to get to). When Primark opened its Oxford Street store in 2007, there was the most absurd stampede of thousands of screaming shoppers into the building, as though they were being chased in by some enormous monster. Instead, it turned out they were being chased in by a monster desire for a cheap cardigan.
Anyone who has worked in a shop over the Christmas and New Year holidays will recognise the strange atavistic behaviour of apparently quite well-socialised adults when confronted with a 50% off sticker. I worked in shops at weekends and during holidays from my 16th birthday until I left university, and loved doing such a chatty job that generally involves helping people find things that they want to buy. There was the woman who hugged me when at 4pm on Christmas Eve I helped her turn her slightly sketchy Christmas list into a basket of presents for her family. But then again there were the people who appeared in the shop on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, hungover, over-fed and overdrawn but still in search of some more stuff.
‘DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?’ bellowed one well-spoken, well-dressed shopper at me after I’d explained she’d need to queue at the till for a refund. In another setting, I might have been tempted to point out I was studying English at university and could also have held the conversation in French or Italian, but in a shop you just have to smile sweetly and pretend that even when they’re rude, the customer is always right.
Working in shops is lovely most of the time but at certain times of the year it gives you a horribly crushing insight into what people are really like when they’re in a bad mood and in front of someone they think unimportant and stupid. I doubt those shouty shoppers would have talked to their own work colleagues in that way. I noticed my own shop colleagues seemed a little more miserable between Boxing Day and New Year too: a thirteen hour shift of being told you’re stupid by someone whose orbit of shopping bags suggests they’re earning quite a bit more than you isn’t good for anyone’s soul.
What we also really find odd, over and over again, is the idea that people could be so desperate for a reduced television and behave the same way as poor Americans fighting each other for access to housing, or even hungry people desperate for some food, any food.
We know that stuff doesn’t really make us very happy at all – because if it did, most people in the Western world would have stopped buying long ago, realising they were sated. But all of us keep thinking that a new pair of shoes, a house in the right postcode or the right sort of phone will somehow mean we’re complete. It’s just that most of us manage to make that futile attempt to fill our lives up with stuff appear a little more restrained. In a way the people fighting over toasters at 4am are just being a bit more honest than the rest of us: they don’t care that others can see their desperation for a bit more stuff, and they don’t care if it means being vile to people they consider to be worth less than themselves. Just wait: the people passing snooty judgement on the 4am fighters today may well be the ones shouting at some poor shop assistant on Boxing Day.