Two weeks ago, I went to the grocery store, filled up my shopping cart, and paid for my groceries. When I attempted to pay with my credit card, the cashier simply pointed at a sign that said “DISCOVER MASTERCARD AND CHECKS NOT ACCEPTED.” I paid with my Visa check card, and took my groceries home.
Today, I went to the exact same grocery store, was greeted with smiles at the door, was smiled at in each aisle as I filled up my shopping cart, and went to pay for my groceries. Before the cashier began scanning my purchases, she swiped her own store-discount card with a sincere smile on her face. Although I again attempted to pay with my Discover card, the cashier said, “Sorry, we only take Visa cards here,” with no finger pointing at all. I paid for my groceries, with the discount, and was offered help to my car with the full cart of groceries.
How was it that my two experiences at the same store were so dramatically different? I am generally the same person as I was two weeks ago, and was wearing a similar style of clothing. My hair, weight, jewelry, and make-up hadn’t changed. I bought similar items. The time of day and day of the week were the same. I didn’t go in the Express Lane with more than 15 items either time. What could have possibly changed?
There were two elements that had changed, and the nonverbal communication messages that were sent had obvious and dramatic effects on how I was treated at the grocery store. Two weeks ago, I was wearing a long-sleeved Nike top while this week I was wearing a hoodie with “CANADA” written in bold across the front. Two weeks ago, I was shopping alone while this week I had my son with me. While at first glance, these two elements may not seem to bear any weight on how I was either rejected or accepted by the grocery store employees, they clearly did. The factor that made these two elements important was the store itself – an Oriental supermarket frequented by non-Caucasion shoppers.
First, we can examine how my sweatshirt and my son influenced people’s perception of me. With my German and Norwegian heritage, I was the only white person in the grocery store on both trips, and my accent clearly labeled me as a US-born English speaker. During my first trip, it was easy to view me as an outsider who was shopping in an Oriental grocery store so that I could claim I was “cultured” in my habits. On my more recent trip, my sweatshirt labeled me as someone who was either a non-US-born person, or at least very closely-related to someone who was non-US-born. In addition, my son is half-Filipino and looks much more like his Dad than me, with beautiful brown skin and thick, straight, black hair. Having my son with me allowed me to be seen as in-group, giving me a valid reason (feeding my son the “right” foods) to shop at this particular grocery store.
Next, we can examine the nonverbal communication messages that I received from the store employees. During my first trip, when I was seen as an outsider, the cashier used only nonverbal communication in the form of a regulator (finger pointing) to refuse my initial credit card offer. During my second trip, the cashier did not use the finger-pointing regulator, but rather used a soft, almost apologetic voice and tilted her head in empathy when explaining that the store only accepted Visa cards. During my first visit, not a single employee met my eye or smiled at me, and most stood still with their arms crossed when I walked by, clearly not accepting my presence by their facial expressions, their eye avoidance, and their posturing. I had entered a secondary territory in which I did not belong, and the employees were forecasting their home-field advantage in every way they could think. During my recent visit, nearly every person looked directly at my son and smiled, most also smiled at me. Two older women even patted my son’s head while he was walking next to me! All of these nonverbal communications – the eye contact, the facial expressions, and the gentle personal touching – were clearly indicating that my son and I were accepted as part of the in-group, and that we both were welcome in the territory. While I experienced multiple silencing messages on my first trip that were intended to communicate the fact that I did not belong and functioned to prevent any other communication, I experienced few silencing messages and many open gestures on my more recent trip to the store.
I think that most people would acknowledge the fact that they make conscious decisions when choosing their clothes. What a person might deem appropriate for a date on a weekend night would probably be different than what the same person might deem appropriate for an early morning church service. What a person might deem appropriate for a job interview would probably be different than what the same person might deem appropriate for an intense workout at the gym. The times when most people don’t think about their clothing options, when they are just running errands on an afternoon, are still times when others are going to interpret, correctly or incorrectly, nonverbal messages about the individual based on her appearance. After having received an extra discount for indicating my affiliation with non-US-born peoples, I will be sure to check my outfit when shopping at this store; this is not any different than wearing more athletic-style clothing when buying a new swimsuit or wearing glasses rather than contact lenses when going to the library. By choosing the clothes I wear, I am choosing to identify myself as an insider, as belonging in the territory.
I think that most parents give little thought to bringing their children with them on errands – getting groceries, filling the car with gas, dropping mail at the post office. Although it may be easier to leave young children at home if there is another caregiver available, it is often the case that the children must be taken with the parent doing out-of-the-house chores. I recently made a conscious decision to not bring my children to a wedding with me, as they would have been the only children present and I did not want to be “that mother.” In contrast, I am certain that I will make every effort to have my son or daughter, if not both children, with me on all future visits to stores where their cuteness saves me money!