We all know what “may I help you?” means 94% of the time. It doesn’t mean “may I help you in some way?” It means “I, being responsible for maintaining order and protocol around here, am suspicious of your status or your intentions, and I’m therefore going to politely get in your face or challenge you in some way.” The vibe that often accompanies makes it one of the chilliest, most borderline hostile four-word phrases in the English language right now. When I hear it my blood runs cold.
But at the same time we’re all obliged to pretend that the person asking is, of course, trying to be truly helpful in some earnestly gracious way, and so we have to respond with a nice gentle alpha vibe and the right kind of smile as we explain that we don’t actually deserve anyone’s suspicion…hah-hah!…and that our intentions are totally cool and legit. The only way it’s not a hostile question is when the questioner is a serious pro and has an especially nice way of speaking and knows how to say it without agitating people. But those folks are few and far between.