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.