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One day a man, probably in his thirties, walked into the store where I worked. At the time I was a temporary manager, and I was there with three other coworkers. There was another girl my age (19 at the time), a guy a couple of years older, and a girl who was 17.

Immediately he started to try and joke with us. I do not remember exactly what it was but it was the kind of joke that made everyone a little uncomfortable but also made you feel obligated to laugh. We were all spread out in the store so he told it multiple times.

I was the first person he talked to and I walked away slightly annoyed to go do something else. I saw him talking to the 17-year-old. She looked slightly uncomfortable. Looking back on it I should have gone over and made sure everything was ok, but I assumed he was telling the same stupid joke and I was busy doing something else. A few minutes later the man walked out and the two other employees on the floor who had been able to hear the conversation immediately went over to the girl to talk about what had just happened.

I went over to see what they were talking about. Apparently, the thirty-something-year-old man had been hitting on the 17-year-old girl. He repeatedly asked if she had a boyfriend and proceeded to talk about finding him and beating him up. Everyone was laughing, but I could tell she looked uncomfortable.

I asked her why she did not walk away or come get me.

               Her response? “I didn’t want to be rude.”

She said it very logically. Like there was no question that she could not have removed herself from the situation because she could not be rude, no matter what the man was saying to her.

What kind of world do we live in that a young girl had been made to feel it was her responsibility to not hurt the man’s feelings, more than twice her age, that was inappropriately hitting on her at her place of work? If she had felt unsafe to walk away that would have been one thing. But she did not walk away from this man choosing to behave in a way that would likely make a young female (and a minor) trying to do her job feel uncomfortable, because she felt she had to make the decision to not be rude. To not even mildly upset the day of this man who was intentionally upsetting hers.

I told her that in that situation, you can be rude! We talked about ways she could get herself out of that situation if it ever happened again.

On a side note, anyone working in a field that interacts with the general public on a regular basis should have some sort of code word or plan to get employees out of uncomfortable or potentially harmful situations. It is hard to walk away from a customer that is being rude or making you feel uncomfortable. Whether you are in management or an associate, talk to the people you work with about coming up with a motion or code word that signals you need help getting out of a situation.

The man was probably physically harmless. Men have gotten away with acting inappropriately to women in customer service for as long as women have worked in customer service. The part of the situation that makes it still so upsetting to me six months later is the fact that that girl had been made to feel that she could not get herself out of an uncomfortable situation because it would have been rude! All the managers where I work are incredibly kind individuals who care about their employees, so I know nobody would have explicitly told her that she had to put up with the man’s behavior. However, in my three years of retail experience, I have seen every woman I have worked with be put in an uncomfortable situation by a customer and put up with it. They did not want to be rude.

Because of this, the girl had probably seen the managers and other employees put up with similar situations leading her to believe she should put up with it as well. The sad reality of it is that sometimes tolerating inappropriate behavior from customers is the easiest way to handle it. Because of this, it will likely never fully go away. That is why it is so important to have open dialogs with co-workers and employees on how to handle dealing with these customers.

My most important takeaway from the story is to tell you this: When someone is intentionally making you feel uncomfortable, you can be rude!

Ciao! My name is Elizabeth and I am a sophomore journalism major at St. Bonaventure. I love to write and I am so excited to have my work included on this fantastic platform for college women!
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