Friday, September 23, 2011

Let's Go Back In Time

     One of the first things you’re taught when you enter the retail world is that you have to learn to work with all different types of human beings.  That goes for coworkers, supervisors, and customers.  We’re taught to appreciate everyone’s background and to respect the differences we may hold.  Whether that person is a snobby trophy wife with bleach blonde hair or someone who thinks going to the dentist once every ten years is asking too much, we have to treat everyone the same.
The hardest thing I have to overlook, however, is the fact that some people still use, let us say, outdated terminology when discussing other groups of people.  For instance, just a week ago, I was assisting a white, (probably) lower-middle class family look for a new TV.  Everything seemed to be going pleasantly enough when the husband, in his 40s or so, points to the TV and asks, “Who made this?  The Japs?”
     He went on to repeat the word 3-4 times within a five-minute conversation.  At first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  I don’t really recall hearing anyone who wasn’t in a TV show or movie use the word “Japs” before.  It’s the kind of thing you would hear in a John Wayne movie from the Forties.  Even when I corrected the guy and said it was made by a company based in South Korea, he just shrugged and said, “Yeah, right, same thing.”  Right, because Canada and the U.S. are the same, too.  To just use such an antiquated, offensive word like that was kind of surprising to me.  Not that I haven’t heard people I’ve worked with or been friends with sling words that most wouldn’t deem politically correct, but to hear someone who I didn’t know just feel so casual as to use it caught me off guard.
     Then, on the same day, an older middle-class white woman (who probably never met a Crate & Barrel she didn’t like) was looking at our store’s laptops.  After assisting her for a few minutes, she noticed another woman with a few kids struggling to find help.  She nodded at the woman and said to me, “I’m still just looking so if you want, you can go help that… dark-colored woman – she’s been waiting for awhile.”
     Now that was more surprising than the Japanese comment from earlier but I’m not quite sure why that is, even now.  I’m used to white people, especially those living in the suburbs or places with low numbers of black people, in the States feeling awkward when having to describe someone they don’t know who happens to be of a different skin color, but to use “dark-colored”? Wow.  I didn’t know it was 1950s day at my work!
     It’s not like she couldn’t have just said, “that other woman” and I wouldn’t have known who she meant.  It was slowing down at that point and there weren’t that many women in the electronics store at that point.  She also seemed to know what she was saying might’ve been inappropriate because she talked quieter when she said the words “dark-colored woman”.  If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything.  Just say, “that other woman” and be done with it.
     I remember 1 time when I was working in a grocery store and a customer asked where a certain melon was brought in from.  I looked on the box that the product was shipped in and it said “Mexico”.  I told the elderly woman and she just shook her head and scoffed.  She told me that she didn’t buy anything from Mexico because she didn’t trust the food coming in.  She believed that the food might not be cleaned properly and that she might get sick.  How a person might’ve gotten sick from a melon not being properly washed is beyond me, since you don’t even eat the skin of melons to begin with, but I digress.  I never really thought about it until after the conversation, but that woman was probably complaining about Mexico’s food when who knows what’s been done to the food made right here in America.  With the amount of chemicals and genetic-modification that’s been done to the food supply and the unclean and unsafe conditions at farms, to name a few, we don’t need to worry about Mexico killing us with dirty produce.  Now, she didn’t use any offensive terminology when talking about Mexicans but the topic was still quite odd.  Besides, with the globalization of most industries, I doubt most of what she owned was truly made in America, anyway.  Why worry about origins of melons?
     All this brings me back to having to treat everyone the same.  What do I do when I have to deal with people who make me feel awkward – not for myself but for them?  Do I ignore the phrasing people use and let them carry on using antiquated terminology in an increasingly global world?  Ignorance is bliss but maybe people should be called out when they’re caught living in the past.  They might’ve grown up using words they picked up from family, friends, and the media, but that’s no excuse for them to still use them.  I used to shit in a diaper but that doesn’t mean I should still be doing it.
     I’m also not a complete prude as to let language alone dictate how I should feel.  George Carlin – a hero of mine – would go on about how words are just words.  They only hold power over us as long as we let them.  While I was surprised by people still using words many have long since left by the wayside, and while I often wish I could openly criticize people for sounding stupid and uneducated by using certain words, I know that words are just words.  The flipside of that is that I don’t want some random customer walking by as a customer uses some offensive term and sees me, unable to criticize that customer and suggest using other language in public, standing there with an awkward expression on my face.  I don’t want me saying nothing to imply that I condone stupidity.
     It also makes me wonder if all of this is mainly an American issue.  I’ve been abroad but I’ve never really had to interact with people treating other people of different ethnic background differently.  Does a random Englishman go up to another Englishman in a store and ask if their wool coats were made by some drunk mick?  I wonder what common interactions are like elsewhere where origins of products is an issue for people.  Do people still cling to offensive words as much as it seems people in the States do? Hmm…
     More soon from the frontlines...