How should we respond when someone is being clearly inappropriate in public?

supermarket carts lined upThis question comes from Greg, but we'll block quote it in standard Ask AOA format:

I was in line at the supermarket this past weekend when the guy in front of me got upset with the cashier and flipped out. The details involved a pack of cigarettes, a Coinstar voucher, and a roll of the quarters. From my view, it seemed like the kind of thing that would usually prompt, at most, mild irritation in someone.
The cashier appeared to be from south Asia -- she had an accent -- and I got the impression she was relatively new on the job. As things escalated, I was basically trying to divert my attention -- oh, look, magazines -- until I heard the guy say "THIS IS AMERICAN CURRENCY" while holding up the roll of quarters. And there was something about the tone that wasn't just frustration -- it was condescending and hostile.
Now I'm staring straight at the guy, and I think other people up front are doing the same thing. The manager comes over and I give her a lot of credit -- she firmly tells the guy not to talk to the cashier like that and she completes whatever transaction he was trying to accomplish. He's still upset, though, and huffs as he walks away.
I'm up next and the cashier is visibly flustered. I commiserate with her, and tell her if she needs to take a minute, it's totally understandable. She shakes it off and checks out my stuff. We joke a little bit. Her composure was admirable.
So, here's a question I had after all that: What should a bystander do in that situation?
Even though this guy was being completely inappropriate, my instinct was to not get involved out of concern that would escalate the situation. And though there was a moment early on where the direction of the encounter was unclear, the manager quickly had it handled after she came over.
I guess I wonder if we all have some responsibility in those situations to make sure we're not making it seem like it's OK to act like that. Is silence a form of tacit acceptance? Is there a good way to communicate a healthy social norm about the way people should be treated?

These sorts of situations are hard, and the right thing to do might vary depending on the details. But if you have thoughts to share, we'd like to hear them.

Comments

I bet you a roll of "the quarters" it was a tRump voter. Who says "this is american currency" other then a complete knob end?

It's a good question though. I've been in a similar situation and wondered the same thing. I was at Stewart's. The line there is always long and slow, so I was getting pretty annoyed myself. Once the guy in front of me making the scene stormed off I made sure to tell the cashier she was doing a good job. I gave myself a mental scolding on the way out for being so impatient.

You did all you could or should do -- show sympathy after the incident to the cashier. I work in a retail situation and management has to take responsibility for inappropriate behavior whether it's by an unhinged customer, staff, vendor, anybody within the building or on the grounds of the business. Managers should have protocols in place for that kind of thing -- that can include anything from calming down the irate individual, escorting them off the premises, or calling the police if necessary. It's a liability issue, too, for bystanders to not get so involved that they might become the brunt of the whack job who could turn violent. Unfortunately, standing up for the beleaguered cashier might have gotten you a punch in the nose. Though you could just look at him like he's a turd.

Yea, what do you do... if you had said "hey sir, hold on a minute" he could have turned and punched you in the face - ya just never know. In your case, the manager was the appropriate person to step in - she had the authority and probably had some kind of customer service training.

Last summer my wife and I are at my 9 year old daughter's softball game. The grandfather of one of our team's players was sitting next to us and started arguing with the opposing team's coach. Without hesitating for one second, my wife and I jumped in and asked him to stop it - mainly because we were embarrassed for the rest of the 9 year olds who had to watch and listen to this man.

This is a great question! And I don't think there is a good answer that fits all situations.

I worked in retail for eighteen years; I was a manager for twelve of those years. I have some stories to tell. Some of my stories are on AOA.

I really wish there had been someone to intervene when men exposed themselves to me, or when a man threatened to kill me and my cashier for not accepting a return of underwear with bodily fluids on them (not blood). In many ways, I was treated as sub-human. Even in small ways. A customer once, completely unsolicited, said I was "unfortunately brave" to dress in fitted clothing at my weight. All I had done was wear a pencil skirt and a swing sweater. Nothing was too tight or revealing. I was the manager of a 20 million dollar store with 350 employees and one lady asked me when I was going to finally get a real job.

It was, in some ways, completely and utterly demoralizing. Especially on days when I saw way too many unsolicited male private parts.

But as much as I wish there had been someone to mitigate some of the more aggressive confrontations, I'm not sure that they would have helped. The guy who threatened to kill me for not accepting that gross return smacked his daughter in the face when she tried to intervene. You just never know how someone is going to react.

Ultimately, as a manager, I realized it was my job to intervene and not another customer's.

* Note: Yes, I know that I have been very lucky to have had a job, any job. That doesn't mean I'm ok with some of the things I went through, including being followed to my car by a customer who wanted to harm me for not honoring an expired coupon.

You had no obligation to do anything more than what you did, but if you feel safe enough it's commendable to offer strong support for the wronged party in a situation like that. Even though you had no obligation, I do think that silence is bit of a tacit acceptance in a situation like that.

There is also the bystander effect to think of - that's where no one person steps up because as a group, the per-person feeling of responsibility is diluted to below the "action threshold". If confronting the troublemaker is too much responsibility for a single person, it may be enough to mention it to someone else who's obviously on your side. Gaining a quick ally makes confrontation much easier.

Anyway, I keep repeating this because it's important to remember: you don't have an obligation to say or do anything in a situation like that, but at the same time, there's great value in choosing to step up / speak up in those situations too. The cashier at the very least *deserves* the support of decent shoppers, at least until the manager arrives.

The guy knows he's being a jerk, so calling him on it is not going to make him suddenly retract his anger and racism and become a decent human being. You did the right thing to focus on supporting the checker. These days there is a lot of divisiveness in the US and showing we stand together is more important than ever.

I feel that when people don't confront inappropriate behavior it sends a signal that it is tolerated. I often speak up in situations like these, depending on my reading of the situation. If we consider ourselves part of a community we all have a role to play in signaling what is and isn't appropriate behavior.

You stand up for the victim, always. Don't let your own fears and anxieties about conflict stand in the way of doing what's right. Especially now, standing up for the "little people," is more important than it's ever been.

Also, to reference one of the first commenters who said the irate person was probably a Trump voter - The only way to stand up to these kinds of people is to do just that. When they're confronted with their own bad behavior, the crumple like foil. They operate comfortably in their hive-mind existences, but when they enter the social world, it's important we hold them to standards of tolerance. Big men and women hiding behind their computer screens have a lot of things to say, but when push comes to shove, they don't know what to do when somebody stands up against their intolerance and stupidity.

As a shy child I had been bullied ... the shy child became a shy adult that wouldn't say boo to anyone no matter the provocation except when I saw another being mistreated be person or animal. As I grew older, I had found myself working in retail and slowly becoming more emboldened and buried my normally shy nature. Now I am well past middle age and am less tolerant of abusers and bullies ... I will say something and I do say something. We tell our children not to bully, we tell our children not to be bullied and to speak up when they are witness. How can we tell our children to do what we ourselves will not. Yes, there are risks but if we do not take a stand - who will?

Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.

That even goes for the event described here. It is not the manager's job to tell the customer who is a grown adult he is not acting appropriately.
I've been a cashier and on the receiving end of it. You need to be calm. But if a customer in line speaks up and calls that monster on his bullshit, its a great way to deflate a bully.
Are you afraid of confrontation? then learn to read body language so you can dodge if he throws a punch

In the few instances I have been in the immediate vicinity of an event like this, I found myself observing with adrenaline increasing then acting in what can only be described as an involuntary reaction. We all know what is right, and when someone is being hostile to another it is human nature to defend the weaker party. Something "more bad" can always result and I would never interject myself if I had kids with me or if immediate violence could be anticipated - that's what 911 is for. But if it's disturbing language or inappropriate behavior, shout the idiot down and question their actions - you will get the support of any people around you. Too many idiots in society. We cannot let them believe they have strength.

Never give them the attention that they are trying to get. Being stupid like this is the only thing that they can do to make themselves feel like somebody.

As someone who works with the public, I have to say that I really appreciate when bystanders DO NOT get involved in a confrontational situation. Our organization has policies and procedures in place-- up to and including calling 911- to deal with incidents like this one and others. As a woman who is somewhat smaller physically, I find that men very often want to step in and "help" me deal with any sort of confrontation-- and while I appreciate the sentiment, all that accomplishes is escalating the situation. Now, instead of one angry, upset person yelling, I have two or more angry upset people yelling, and most likely making everything worse. Staying out of it, or going to get another staff member, would be the most helpful course of action. Of course, every organization and situation are different, but that is my perspective.

There's no one right answer.

In this particular situation I hope I would have spoken up and that others would join in.

BUT (and this is a BIG freaking "but") there are many situations in which intervention is the wrong choice and can get you killed.

So...proceed with caution, folks.

People don't stop acting like that until it becomes socially unacceptable. Speaking out against them makes it socially unacceptable and encourages others to do the same in the future.

Empathy may be the best approach. You may not feel very sympathetic towards the jerk, but he is clearly having a bad day and taking it out on the cashier. Saying, "I know you're having a tough time, and I'm sorry you are....can I help you out?" may be the best option for defusing the situation...other than that, let the people trained and paid to handle it - handle it. Telling him to knock it off will probably not pay off.

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