How Customer Service Trained Me to Freeze in the Face of Sexism

Yesterday I was working the self check out registers at Home Depot. There are four machines, and a few were in use so I was standing at my post near the main computer – ready to help when something inevitably goes wrong, and to smile at the customers entering the store.

I consider part of my job as a cashier to be a greeter. I stand ready with a smile on my face (almost) constantly, ready to broaden my smile and tell customers “Good morning!” or “Welcome to the Home Depot!”. They mostly smile back or nod, and it’s an easy way to start a pleasant interaction with customers. I pitch my voice a littler higher than is normal for me, and try to keep my shoulders and hands relaxed to appear open and approachable.

It’s not uncommon for customers to ignore me. The Home Depot gets a lot of professional contractors or builders or people whose faucet is spaying over their pissed spouse and crying kid or landscapers. These are busy people. But I know the value of customer service; it’s the industry I’ve been in the longest. I say good morning to everyone who crosses my path, unless I’m helping other customers.

So when an older white man walked through the self check out area with his chin to his chest, tapping away at his phone, I wasn’t surprised and I didn’t expect anything but I said “Good morning!” anyway.

His head shot up, he looked around quickly, and laughed. His voice was too loud for indoors, even in a warehouse, when he apologized for not seeing me.

He hurried off to get a cart, and I was watching another man try to balance his baby and a tub on his hip while he tapped the pin pad. The loud man pushed a cart right next to me and said, “I’m Andy I come here all the time, here give me a hug.” And he put his arm around my shoulders.

In that moment I froze. In no way did I want to be hugged by this man. I absolutely did not want to hug him. Though I’m a tactile person with my friends and family, I did not want to hug this loud stranger in the Home Depot.

I froze. I know that nothing in my job description says I have to hug customers. I know that no one can demand that of me. I know that if I told my Head Cashier about it, or one of the Assistant Managers, they would have to be on my side. I know that I’d be in the right to refuse this hug.

But I freeze, and I freeze into customer-service-mode, which is the most obliging, most passive, softest spoken, most congenial form of myself. I am ultra-feminine in all the ways I was taught to be feminine. I am not aggressive, I am unselfish, I am sweet, and I am so so passive.

He moves in too quick for me to unfreeze, he doesn’t wait to see if I want to be hugged by him, and I hear myself saying “sure” without meaning to speak.

Thankfully it’s a side-hug, and my shoulder touches his chest briefly before he lets go. I had raised my arm to pat his back, but I unfreeze enough to keep it suspended in mid air, pointedly inactive.

He pushes his cart out of my section and continues on with his shopping trip.

I stand at my register fuming, at him at myself, and I can’t smile for a minute.

I hate that this man thinks it’s okay to hug me. I hate that he didn’t ask if he could, that he didn’t look at me at all to gauge my reaction.

I hate that I’m so conditioned to go along with what loud people, demanding people want. I hate that I freeze. I hate that I didn’t say no. I hate that my feet aren’t quick enough to move me away, that my voice isn’t strong enough to speak up, and resistance dies in my throat.

I hate that I’ve been taught to be this way.

But I didn’t hug him back, or pat his back. It was a second too late, but this is a second quicker than I used to be. Unfreezing, retraining, unconditioning yourself is a slow process. But I’m a second closer to refusing contact from strangers, so I don’t hate that.

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aprilkrgonzales

Chicana, feminist, writer slugging through grad school with a job teaching composition.

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