Reader pjs has written in with this query:
Yesterday, I had a bad experience, and I need some advice. I went to return a shirt at Walmart. The customer service employee was maybe five years older than me, late twenties, white male. He asked me if the shirt was too big. Unthinkingly, I smiled and said yes. Almost immediately, I began to feel extremely self-conscious. I believe I blushed, a very rare occurrence for me. At first I thought he was just drawing attention to the fact that I’m fairly thin. Then, it dawned on me that he might be calling me flat chested (I am proud to be a 34A). The remaining few minutes of the transaction felt like forever, and then I dashed away.
Today, I was thinking about it again, and decided maybe I should submit a complaint to the store. But then I reconsidered – the thought of some manager and the guy having a laugh over the complaint was disgusting. From what I hear, Walmart has a terrible track record with these sorts of things (I probably shouldn’t have been shopping there in the first place). The complaint probably wouldn’t have any effect, and I’m highly unlikely to see this guy again. On the other hand, the comment was truly inappropriate no matter which way he meant it… right?
And maybe I’m overthinking it entirely. Maybe my recently acquired interest in feminism is turning me oversensitive and causing me to see males in a new and worse light.
What’s a self-respecting feminist to do?
This sort of thing is very tricky to deal with. It’s hard enough to get one’s complaints taken seriously about comments and behaviours that are unambiguous, and in this sort of case it’s really hard to imagine a complaint accomplishing anything. Then there are the epistemic difficulties of knowing what was really intended. One fairly all-purpose solution I like is to simply look puzzled and ask for clarification, forcing the person to either spell out something offensive, make it clear they meant something else, or simply get embarrassed. I learned this from my excellent Irish friend M. We were dealing with a fool (F) who had come to pick up some boxes to be shipped to the US. M helped him with all the adding and measuring, for which he was grateful. Then he discovered he’d lost his card-reader (the old-style kind that stamps his company’s details on a receipt) and panicked. M explained that he needn’t worry too much since whoever had it could only put payments into F’s company. F started laughing, imagining “some Irish guy” doing just this. M simply looked at him and said “Oh, really?” with a sweet smile. F’s jaw dropped in horror and he froze in that position for sometime. I still smile when I remember it.
So that’s my recommendation. What’s yours?