A man came in my store a few weekends ago and at the beginning, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to ask him to leave because I found his choices of words towards both myself and his son to be verbally abusive, though I didn’t exactly recognize it as verbal abuse right at the beginning. I just knew that I didn’t like it.
He came in asking to see our sock selection. As I led him to our socks, he started talking about how “stupid” our socks had been in recent years and how we hadn’t had a good sock in five years. All the recent ones were terrible and he said, “Those idiots don’t know what they’re doing.” He admitted that our current socks were “better” but said he wanted to shop out of the clearance sock bin only. I have no clearance sock bin right now. He then told me that I was “stupid” and our company was “full of stupid jerks” for not having a discount sock bin and that by not having a clearance sock bin we were “running our business into the ground.” He’s a business owner, he explained. He knows how companies run their businesses into the ground. When I replied that I thought we might run our business into the ground much more quickly by selling all of our socks at a highly discounted rate rather than their retail price, he scoffed at me and told me that I would see. “Running your business into the ground you are. You won’t be here much longer. Stupid idiots. I only wear [my company's] socks. These are dying. I need new socks. What am I supposed to do?” “Sir,” I replied with the all the patience I could summon, “there are sixteen choices of colorful socks right here for your consideration.”
I wanted to add, “Stupid.”
I bit my tongue when I listened to him do the same thing to his son. It was then that I realized what sort of person he was. “What gloves do you like?” he asked the boy. The boy grabbed a pair off the wall. The father said, “No. Those are stupid and ugly.” He then went on to point out that the only “appealing” color of gloves on the wall were the walnut brown ones because they were “earth tones.” “See my shoes,” he said, pointing at the Merrills on his feet. “Earth tones. This is the only color those idiots got right. Appealing, see how appealing this color is? I’m going to write some nice little emails about this. All the others: ugly.” He said it three times. The kid looked completely and totally deflated. My heart sank. He had chosen black.
For 20 minutes after that, I listened to him walk around the store and talk about all the “stupid” things he was going to send “nice emails” about. He spent the entire time making degrading comments about our products, what kind of “idiots” and “jerks” work at headquarters, and our color choices to his son; he wants to “find out who [my company] is in bed with.” He would pepper his negative comments with comments about how he “only wears [clothes from my company].” His language seemed limited to the words stupid, idiotic, and jerks and all the while he verbally cut down our products, he at the same time assured the boy that these were the only ones you should wear. I was at a loss for words.
When they finally left, I felt horrible and morally defeated for not coming to the boy’s assistance. The man’s presence and language in the store made me feel empty like no one else ever had: as if I had been drained of all my sense of individual. For those of you who know me well, you know that my sense of identity is far stronger than others’. For me to feel like I had completely lost all of my self-worth in a matter of minutes was extremely disconcerting. I had never felt that way ever before. You know how the Death Eaters suck out people’s souls in Harry Potter and that long wisp of their identity comes trailing out of their mouths in the movie? That’s how I felt: like a Death Eater had stolen my soul. Even 24 hours later, I still felt a pit in my stomach when I reflected on how devoid of confidence that man’s words and presence made me feel. In addition, I felt like I should have stood up for his son. But at the time, I was so flabbergasted by the situation and honestly, I didn’t think it was my place as an employee. I had guilt. Shouldn’t I have said something to make it stop? The entire incident left me with intense self doubt.
His son came back into the store by himself because he had forgotten his glasses. As he was going to leave I said, “Wait.” He stopped and looked at me. “I like black,“ I said. He replied, “I do too.” “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t like.” “Okay.”
To my chagrin, the man walked back in and asks me when a few other stores in the complex had moved out. I tell him they left in December and he shakes his head and says, “The stupid planning agency is ruining this town.”
“The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency? Sir, the TRPA had absolutely nothing to do with the stores leaving this mall.”
“Yes, they do, they have EVERYTHING to do with it,” he says. I gently but firmly disagree with him again. People in my town like to blame all of their problems on the TRPA and it’s just not accurate or fair. “Sir, I assure you that it has everything to do with the property owners and the business and nothing to do with the TRPA.” He begins to yell from the door about how he’s been a local for however many years and he can explain why it’s their fault and I cut him off and say, “You know what, I don’t want to have this conversation.” So he leaves and then returns, AGAIN and asks for my name, presumably so that he can write some nice little emails about me.
And I cried: shaken by the experience, unnerved by how I felt, and sad for that boy. I actually could not STOP crying and seriously, I never cry. In hysterics, I called both my bosses but couldn’t get either. Thankfully another manager friend finally answered.
I’ve been yelled at an awful lot in my 16 years working in retail but I’ve never been experienced calculated verbal abuse like that before. Sometimes people are upset about a product, or a situation or an experience they had but even if they are screaming at you, they aren’t trying to control you and although it’s never fun to be on the receiving end of an upset customer, one is still able to put yourself in their shoes and empathize with their behavior. They’re simply just MAD about something and aren’t expressing themselves so well. This was something entirely different. I have never felt so intensely awful before after an encounter with someone else. I imagine what his son’s life is like and I feel tremendous pain and horror for him. I hope he grows up to be a better man than his father is. I hope that he does not feel, on a daily basis, the loss of self confidence and sadness that his father left me with. I hope that no one ever makes my staff feel like that.
On the plus side, earlier that week I had already called Tahoe Youth and Family Services, a local non profit dedicated to providing a safety net of services to families through counseling, mentoring, and emergency youth shelters, among other things. They are hosting their annual fundraiser, a Great Gatsby Gala, in August and I volunteered to donate my time and photo booth services to the event. My angst over the incident in my store has been slightly tempered by my ability to give back to an organization that deals with exactly that sort of thing.