Monday, October 13, 2008

Ambassadors in the Fitting Room

I wrote this right after I got back from my trip to the States. There was a little incident that I witnessed while in the States that perturbed me into writing something about it.

I was in a clothing store behind two Middle Eastern women who were buying clothing from the cashier in front of me. After they finished and left the store, one of the sales ladies walked into the fitting room, came out and said with a certain degree of contempt in front of everyone else waiting in line, “Can you believe that? Those Arab women just throw the clothes on the floor! They don’t even bother to hang them up. They think that we are here to serve them!”

This offense could have been committed by anyone from anywhere in the world with bad manners (as a former retail salesperson myself, I know this), but it was singled out as an “Arab” trait singularly by appearances. I couldn’t tell what country the women were from. Just that they had been labeled as “Arab” by the hejabs they wore and by the language they spoke. It didn’t matter. We are all ambassadors of our country and perhaps beyond that, our cultures.

I wanted to say to the sales people, 'Don't make the assumption that everyone in the Arab world behaves like that.' However, what could I say? I don't condone bad behavior either. It also would have taken far longer than the 3 minutes I had at the check out stand to articulate the reasons why they shouldn't be prejudice.

Dumping clothes on the fitting room floor (one of my many pet peeves) not only makes life harder for the sales people, but for the other customers (usually waiting in line) to try on clothes. Furthermore, who wants to buy clothing that has been left in a pile on the floor? Garments get dirty and wrinkled – regardless of how inexpensive or expensive the item is. Sales people are not there to clean up after other people’s messes in any country; although perhaps some customers wrongly assume that they are. In the States, sales people in retail stores make minimum wage (in Kuwait, even less). They are there to work – as we all are in the working world for money. Sales people are not there to be housemaids to lazy, arrogant, selfish people who are somehow unable to take the two more minutes it would take to hang the garment on the hanger. Sales people have made a choice to work in a store and not in a home.

People visiting foreign countries should be sensitive to what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Visitors to any country should know what behaviors are appropriate/accepted (“when in Rome…”). What is acceptable behavior in one country may be insulting in another.

Although a small incident by comparison to global politics, this incident revealed how people are affected by first impressions. The sales personnel and the people standing in line on this particular day may not have Middle Eastern friends or acquaintances; they may not ever get to know anyone from the Middle East. They judge the few as a whole. They’ll go home, tell their friends and their family about it; and those people will form an opinion (ergo the term "prejudice"). As a bystander to this incident, it made me sad - as I love this part of the world - and wished I had an opportunity to defend it. Although an isolated incident, it had an affect the progress that has been made – if nothing else than for the the small group of people who were there that day to witness to it.


Anonymous said...


You leave me dumbfounded. I can only say that your mannerisms are just too good.

Yes. The soceity without any doubts is in need of few people like you. Like you have rightly pointed out in your earlier articles about the 'Tipping Point', you believe you can 'Tip' and know what!!


Great going & way to go girl.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article and very true. Just the way some people label all brown people as "Hindus." LOL.

Anonymous said...

The salespeople should not have pointed out what they assumed was the shoppers' nationality. But I have to say, I was shocked by how women behave in fitting rooms here in Kuwait. The first time I was in a fitting room (H&M), I was amazed by the bad behavior. Children ran screaming in and out of fitting rooms. Women threw clothes they had tried on all over the floor, both inside and outside of the rooms. Other women walked all over the clothing. The poor girl working the room was doing her best to snatch the clothes off the floor without getting her fingers stepped on. No one used hangers, no one said "excuse me" when they pushed past me. I tried to help the girl working there by grabbing up some of the discarded clothing and stacking it on a chair to be hung but it was a losing battle. I felt so badly for her. I thought to myself, this is just a bad day. Surely they don't always behave like this. Well, I was wrong. Every fitting room I have been in Kuwait was a repeat of the above- sometimes without the screaming children, sometimes with more or less pushing. It doesn't seem to matter what age the woman is- they all seem to have no regard whatsoever for the clothing or the poor salespeople. It is very frustrating to watch and has reached the point where I try to purchase clothing when I am in another country rather than battle the fitting rooms here. And before everyone jumps all over me, I want to say that there are a lot of good things about Kuwait. The fitting/dressing room behavior is just not one of them.

Anonymous said...

Having spent the summer in Kuwait, I was amazed to see my once beautifully mannered fiance promptly throw his dishdasha in the middle of the living room floor for the maid to pick up. Couldn't bother to walk to the hamper, far cry from the nicely folded and stacked clothes of the U.S., just threw them in the middle of the floor. My mother would've smacked the crap out of me, but his said not a damn word. We will NOT be having a maid and I'll be damned if he pulls that shit in our home, and we both know and understand that. Yet, at home in Kuwait, it came naturally to him. Moreover, you will meet in Kuwait bedouin women in Niqab who seem to assume that because you can't put a face on their immense rudeness that it's just a-okay to be an absolute ass in public, run over your fellow shoppers, butt in line and just generally behave themselves disgracefully while out. These same women will be impeccably polite, hospitable and welcoming when meeting in a private setting. It's bizarre. The same man that will change your tire and even pay for a mechanic if you break down, will run you off the road for being too slow, or just for kicks. Kuwait is an odd dichotomy, but beautiful despite the jarring dissonence...the same person who will do everything to make sure a guest is comfortable, would, in a different situation, be likely to bundle you off into a van and trundle you off to a camp. It is hard to fathom, but those crazy waters are worth swimming...and shopping there is an adventure in and of itself. By the end of a 3 month period, I had gone well beyond polite observance and just started taking the offense, being as rude as I would back home in similar circumstances. Spoilt brats are the same the world over, their culture isn't to blame, their mothers are. SP

Desert Girl said...

Anonymous (Having spent...) -

Very well stated! "Odd dichotomy" is a perfect phrase to describe Kuwait and I am very glad to hear your perspective; it summarizes how I often feel, but haven't been able to articulate as well as you just have.

Please keep posting. Insights like this are why I leave the anonymous posting option on the blog! Outstanding.

Also, I agree with you 100% - it all depends how you were raised.