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February 06, 2006

I hate white people

So we're standing on line at Sur La Table on Fourth Street in Berkeley this past Saturday, which clause right there pretty much guarantees not only that the story that follows won't be pleasant but that I walked into it with my eyes open. But Becky's sister gave her a fifty dollar gift card for the place, a very thoughtful gesture, and so we pick up a couple silicone parchments for 9-inch cake pans, some grapeseed oil, and other such absolute necessities.

And there's a woman at the head of the line, just in front of us, who's trying to return a 12-inch All-Clad skillet.

The line in this place often moves relatively quickly, because they have three or four stations and the clerks are reasonably efficient. But within about twenty seconds of beginning her transaction, the skillet woman has become so difficult that she's monopolizing three clerks, one of whom is the manager, and the fourth is helping a customer somewhere else in the store. And the manager is saying "I'm very sorry she told you that you could get your money back right away, ma'am, but if you paid with a check we can't reimburse you until the check clears."

We can't hear what the woman says in response, as her back is to us and her curly gray hair provides effective soundproofing. Still, her whining tone carries across the noise of the store.

The manager puts on her best public relations face. "Yes, ma'am, and I'm terribly sorry for the inconvenience. And we'll be happy to accept the return, and we'll reimburse you in full, and the check should arrive within two weeks after yours clears."

I should say that my natural sympathies lie with the customer in such situations, despite more than a decade spent working on the other side of the counter. It's infuriating to be told on the phone that something's in stock when it's not, or that store policy will allow a certain transaction when in fact store policy expressly forbids such transactions. It's irritating and increasingly common. In fact, my years of retail, if anything, prompt greater impatience with merchant ineptitude. It's so easy to get it right, most of the time.

But this woman has won. She's getting her money back. The store's policy is eminently reasonable. Sure, I can see a moment of annoyance if she expected to be able to skip a visit to the ATM before buying lunch, but jesus, lady, pick your battles. The manager turns her "understanding and helpful" face up to eleven. "Yes, ma'am, I know. But I am the manager. If she said that, she didn't check with me. And like I said, we're happy to accept the return and we'll reimburse you in full."

More inaudible, muffled whining commences. Becky, always solicitous of my impatience when dealing with Fourth Street yuppie shoppers, asks if I'm OK. "I'm fine," I lie. My headache is mounting. I imagine taking the 12-inch All-Clad skillet, yelling "El Kabong!," and beaning Whining Woman with the flat side. I wonder idly whether it would ring a clear metal tone, or make a dull thump.

My fantasy is just that, but there is a kind of person for whom coercion is the main strategy in dealing with the world at large. Sometimes the coercion is overt, with threats of violence. More often, the coercion comes in the form of being a pain in the ass. If you're brought up with the expectation that you'll get what you want by whining and complaining, you're likely to whine and complain fairly often as an adult.

If I may be permitted a generalization here: this behavior is largely the province of the affluent. The whining can be over a returned skillet not being met with a fistful of cash. It can be about a real estate speculation deal not being insanely remunerative because the speculator forgot to make sure current environmental law permitted his plans. It can be over a nation not just acceding to your desire to loot the country for your energy industry pals and let you privatize Social Security and wiretap liberals. It can even be over something important, like me having the temerity to flip you off when you run the red light in your SUV while talking on your cell phone while I'm in the crosswalk, and in your way. (Actual response: "Excuse me? I'm on the phone!")

It is the whine of entitlement, and it sounds a little something just like this:

But mumble mumble telephone this morning mumble refund mumble told me!

Those of us not brought up with the expectation that we will get whatever we want rarely see incessant whining as a realistic strategy. Sometimes we pitch fits, decide to do battle to the death for a seemingly insignificant item whose importance to us is far beyond what it would seem to a dispassionate observer, like the ongoing fight over People's Park on the other side of Berkeley. But not for every little thing, because who has the energy for that if they actually have to, you know, make a living? A check in the mail from a reputable store is a victory. Time enough for whining if it doesn't show up in the appointed week.

Not this woman.

There are now sixteen people in line behind her. (Observer of human foibles that I am, I count them.) A man walks to the head of the line, a friendly-faced fellow who it turns out is there with Whining Woman. "What's the hold up?" he asks in an amiable voice. Is he her husband? Her son? Her primary care physician? I can't tell.

Mumble something didn't mumble whine.

"As I told you, ma'am, we're happy to refund your purchase, and the check should be to you within two weeks after yours clears."

But mumble mumble whine.

"What are you concerned about? Are you worried they won't send it?" I like this guy.

I look at the clock. We've been standing behind the woman for ten minutes. I start to say "She's concerned that not enough people are in line behind her: she wants to try for fifty," but as I open my mouth to speak, a clerk's voice rings out from the other side of the counter. "I can help the next person over here!"

Ninety seconds and we're out of the store. My headache clears up almost immediately. We walk toward the car.

A block down the street is a restaurant I haven't heard of before. It occupies a building that once housed Ginger Island, a fake-tropical restaurant that one memorable day made me violently and embarrassingly ill twenty minutes after eating, so I'm pleased to see a new place there. Becky and I stop to read the menu, my arm over her shoulder, for perhaps fifteen seconds. I hear some footsteps behind me, and then a plaintive, wheedling voice.

"Can I read it too?"

This is not stated as a reasonable request. It's said in the kind of cloying, passive-aggressive, sighing tone that signifies that the person asking has been waiting an awfully long time, really long enough to stretch the patience of any mortal human, and yet was making a deliberate, forceful point of showing that her politeness was not in the least impinged by the incredible rudeness of those who made her wait, now don't you feel as low as dirt for so horribly mistreating her?

We turn. Sure enough, it's The Incredible Whining Skillet-Returning Entitlement Woman. Nice Guy -- who I immediately rename "Enabling Guy" -- stands a distance back on the sidewalk, lips smiling tightly and hands folded in front of him, as she pushes her way in front of us. Becky stares her right in the face for a moment, shocked to the point of near-laughter, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Of our responses, hers is the far more effective and I think constructive. She starts laughing and pulls me away down the street as I observe, in a voice several tens of decibels louder and probably an octave higher than my usual speaking voice, that some people are obviously far too important to have to wait in line behind anyone.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 6, 2006 03:34 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I know that woman. Becky's response was by far the best way to handle it. You can't embarrass that kind of person. Can't insult them. Nothing gets through. But seems like laughing at them might cause just a split second of discomfort. Not much, but any little needle-prick of consciousness is better than what they usually have.

Posted by: Emily at February 6, 2006 05:36 PM
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And please don't hate all of us white women. Most of us can't stand the sight of the smug and entitled, either.

Posted by: Emily at February 6, 2006 05:38 PM
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I could tell you some stories.
Sometimes I wonder if my PTSD is not the result of the other stuff, but rather the 6+ years on the phones at Fisher-Price. After all, one of the symptoms is recurring nightmares, and guess what I'm back doing in many of them...

Posted by: craig at February 6, 2006 05:47 PM
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What delightful irony.

My one year of retail left me with less patience for retail workers too. But oddly enough, I still rarely complain about it. It just annoys me more now than it did before.

Posted by: Charlie at February 6, 2006 05:49 PM
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The most effective way to deal with these people is not the kabong/thump option. It's accidentally making their drinks 25 degrees hotter than they're supposed to be. By accident. And then accidentally losing your grip when you go to hand them the cup.

Posted by: Allison at February 6, 2006 06:11 PM
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It's folks that like who make it hard for the rest of us to get decent customer service.

Posted by: Roxanne at February 6, 2006 06:29 PM
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laughing at them (becky) and calling them publicly on their shit (chris) are both, IMHO, effective and satisfying. i think the calling part is most, and perhaps only, effective if delivered with some mixture of condescension and disdain.

laughing pretty much does that too, but is probably easier to pull off effectively.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at February 6, 2006 07:18 PM
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There's a special place in hell for those whose hobbies include "harassing sales and service people." It's really a hobby now for the under-employed yet-wealthy: a small dose of cruelty before their evening fix of more televised whining, conflict and humiliation.

How do I know this? Well, my Dad's one of them, at least when he's at a particular peak of his manic phases. Since I seem to be the lucky recipient of most of his genes, I expect the latent urge to start harrasing innocent cashiers and barristas to turn up any second now... or, right after the harry patches finish growing in on my shoulders-- Thanks Dad!

Posted by: Ross at February 6, 2006 07:27 PM
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I blame Nordstrom's.

Posted by: Janeen at February 6, 2006 07:35 PM
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Like Ross, I recognize my father in this whining-and-entitled woman. And if this scenario were to play out in my own life, albeit perhaps not with my father in the starring role, I would very likely be you, Chris, loudly making rude comments in a more or less passive-aggressive manner instead of perhaps dealing with the woman more directly. If dear old Dad had his way, both of his daughters would employ this same tactic of obnoxious whining to get whatever it is that we feel we have an entitlement to; thank heavens both of us recognize just how awful people like this are and have vowed never to become one of them-- genetics and upbringing notwithstanding.

Posted by: squareknitter at February 6, 2006 08:20 PM
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I sat in front of this woman in church last week. At least I thought I did the first two times she talked and whined in what were supposed to be times of silent worship. Then I realized she clearly wasn't the woman she used to be, and her dementia and resulting anxiety were just overwhelming her. And her long-suffering husband never told her "hush", just briefly answered each question (even the one about how she was supposed to get to the altar rail without her walker, which she asked (I count too, it calms me) 16 times.

Posted by: Liz at February 7, 2006 01:29 AM
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I dunno Chris, maybe you were witnessing an attempted scam: Pay for a $125 skillet (that's the price on Amazon, probably more at the yuppie kitchen store)with a check on Friday, go back on Saturday (when the store is busy and clerks are stressed) and demand a cash stop is the friendly neighborhood Oxycontin dealer.

Posted by: Prufrocky at February 7, 2006 03:47 AM
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Assuming it wasn't a scam:

1. Quite possibly a simple slip-up by the phone person. Checks are a rarity these days.

2. Still, incompetent management. Even if your staff is 100% accurate on the phone and makes sure they're understood, some customers will miss the whole point, and always in their own favor. Shouldn't come as a surprise

3. I worked a couple years for an establishment that catered almost exclusively to the perpetually entitled. If you aren't prepared to fuck 'em and keep smiling you're not fit for the job. Ask the woman to step aside so you can get the line moving again, suggest you need to go contact the regional manager to see what can be done about it, and let her cool her heels for ten minutes.

4. My policy these days (it's enhanced by the grey beard) is to speak up immediately when this stuff happens. "Does it take three of you to solve the problem?" or "Can't you get the line moving while you solve this off to the side?" can work wonders. Lots of times the clerks are too paralyzed by the griping customer to think about anything else. I'm always sweet about it now, but in another ten years I'm going full tilt crochety.

Posted by: doghouse riley at February 7, 2006 05:05 AM
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Amazing! I swear that woman really gets around. I'm quite sure I saw her here in Tokyo on the train just four hours ago... the one shoving everyone out of the way so that she could get that seat and who gave me the biggest bug eyes when I put my bag in the vacant seat and proceeded to pretend to rummage for my gloves... and then I thought her eyes were going to SPROING out of her head when I reached around her, tapped an elderly woman on the shoulder, and offered the seat to her.

I'm sure she'll be making her way across the pond to Korea next, and then Hong Kong, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Frankfurt, London, and New York. Being entitled I'm sure she's whining at the ticket coutner right now for that round the world ticket she ordered the day before yesterday.

I was wondering what that booming temple bell sound was coming from the east the other day...

Posted by: butuki at February 7, 2006 09:41 AM
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My hunch is a dull thump, but a resounding kabong would certainly be a deeply satisfying sound.

Posted by: Orange at February 7, 2006 12:49 PM
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=v= I've known a number of people who exhibit this sort of behavior, from up and down the economic scale, mostly (but not always) women, mostly (nearly always) white. The thing is, I do like how they call businesses on their shit, their deceptions, their prices, etc., but there is a problem in that most of them don't choose their battles. For the people I know, the behavior pattern seems to hold sway even for piddling matters.

(It does sound as if your Berkeley woman had the entitlement thing going, though, and probably other issues, given her social obliviousness.)

I wish there was a way to harness this white people energy and use it for good, not evil. A lot of retail businesses and banks are hitting us with unwarranted fees, overcharges, and other ripoffs. Investigations have revealed that people of color and those who speak English as a second langauge are least likely to challenge these things, so they're bearing the brunt of these business practices.

Posted by: Jym at February 8, 2006 02:19 PM
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What is it with this focus on white people as the baddies here? Black, Asian, Latino, Jewish, Indian, European, Arab, Polynesian, city-bred, country-bred, tall, short, thick, thin, smart, stupid, innie, outie, long-haired, and short... people like that are everywhere. It's just that if you live in a place with predominantly white people you're going to get the weirdos in white. Live in a place predominantly Asian, you're going to get the Asian weirdos. It's law of nature... weirdos are an evolutionary percentage of the ecosystem.

Posted by: butuki at February 8, 2006 10:41 PM
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Your title was the first thing I said after watching Dances With Wolves for the first time. (I'm European-American, btw.)

I feel certain this was a scam. This woman was trying to use the discomfort of the manager at having a line build up behind her to manipulate hir into giving the bitch cash. And I bet Nice/Enabling Guy was in on it too.

I think the right response at the restaurant—not that I'm sure I could have done it myself—would have been to say "Now you can wait until we're done. Sucks, doesn't it?"

When I encounter some asshole like the one in the SUV you describe, I don't always flip them off. I yell "Hang up and drive!" at them. But then I live in a state that, sanely, has outlawed talking on a handheld cellphone while driving. (Research shows it's about equivalent to a couple stiff drinks in terms of driving impairment. Also that it's the distraction, not the occupied hand, that causes the problem, but baby steps, baby steps...)

Posted by: Xopher at February 10, 2006 12:25 PM
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Racist bitch.

Posted by: Wow at February 11, 2006 02:41 PM
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Misogynist silly person.

Posted by: the_bone at February 11, 2006 03:39 PM
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Dear "Wow."

For good or ill, I am of European ancestry and thus permitted to hate white people if I choose.

But thanks for caring.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 11, 2006 05:32 PM
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I get the "I hate white people" comment--as a middle class white person I know that I've been raised with all the advantages that make such behavior unnecessary. I won't get evicted because I have to wait for a fucking refund check for a piece of luxury cookware.

That's why certain behaviors, when committed by people of my own race and economic level, such as littering, drive me especially apeshit. Not only can money not buy you love, but neither can it buy class.

Posted by: Silentspring at February 12, 2006 11:18 AM
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I get the entitlement exasperation. And I totally get the urge to whang the woman with a skillet. Thing is--however helpful this may or may not be--I think actually people whine when they *don't* feel powerful. And that passive-aggressive thing is typical (not universal of course) among women of a Certain Age, I find. It comes from a lifetime's worth of not being taken seriously and/or fear of being annihilated if they actually just said what they wanted, no muss, no fuss. That would be selfish, don't you know. I bet that woman thinks she's just the nicest, most selfless, put-upon, etc...

Which doesn't change the fact that such people *are* astonishingly annoying, of course.

Posted by: belledame222 at February 13, 2006 09:13 AM
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Hmm.. on a second reading, I think this specific case may represent something more endemic to Berkeley. I keep getting visions of the woman who tried to kill me with her shopping cart in The Bowl the other day. She conciously decided not to stop, scraped my ankles and then turned around and scowled at me.. all for staring 3 seconds too long at some hoisin sauce.

Funny what happens when a bunch of old hippies come together en masse these days. It used to be Woodstock-- now it's social darwinist hell. I don't blame them, I don't have time for human decency now either, but it does make me miss red-state America, just a bit.

Posted by: Ross at February 13, 2006 01:02 PM
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