I was holiday shopping in a department store the other day when this one phrase assaulted me: 'Can I help you?'

I couldn't wander ten feet without some smiling employee emerging from behind a rack of clothes.

Can I help you? Are you being helped?

It was like that climactic scene in 'The Birds,' if Tippi Hedren were being ripped apart not by rabid beaks but by cheery customer service.

This is enormously cranky of me. After all, these men and women are just doing their jobs, and it couldn't be easy -- not with grinches like me loitering around the accessories department. But I do find the fawning a bit excessive, and I've long felt uncomfortable with even the most ordinary consumer call-and-response.

I can go to Sephora in search of a specific liquid eyeliner, but when the woman asks, 'Are you looking for anything in particular?'

I say no. I lie to her.

Why? Because I'm afraid she won't approve? Because I'd rather waste 10 minutes wandering the aisles than have an actual human interaction?

I've heard that in Finland, it's customary for the shopper to at least make eye contact before the employee can approach. Personally, I prefer this dynamic. Let me come to you.

But I don't write the rules, a lesson we all learn during the holidays.

Lines will be long. Parking will be hideous. People will dare to assist you even when you don't want assistance, and the best way to help everyone is to smile, call upon our better selves, and thank them.

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