October 28, 2002

Personal space violation

This recent posting from Charles reminded me of a weird thing that happened at the grocery store a few days ago. We had a halloween party on Saturday night, so Friday night I had to make a beer/liquor/food run, in that order. Being a good money watcher, I used my ATM card to take the money out of my checking account. (Hate credit cards!) But when I got to the last stop (grocery store), I got the “Not Authorized” from the card reader, even after two successive tries to ensure I hit all the right buttons. No go.

If this has ever happened you probably remember the exact nature of the lump in the pit of your stomach. But the weird part was this: while the cashier got on the horn to his manager, the woman behind me (mid-late 30s, with a few items on the belt including Pampers) placed her hand on my shoulder, and then put her forehead on top of her her hand in a "I can't believe this is happening" gesture.

This was odd on many levels. First, there's the personal space. Second, there's the embarrassment of involuntarily sharing my financial discomfort with someone I've never met. Third, there's the gender difference. Fourth, I couldn't tell if she was kidding, really upset with life and at the end of her rope or what.

So what do you do in a situation like this? If I were more empathetic I would have reached out and touched her shoulder or some other non-sexual body part. (But then, aren't they all?) After 15 seconds or so she picked her head up and smiled a little bit, joked about buying my groceries for me so she could go through. (Would have been great, as I had $150+ in my cart.) And then everything worked out and the situation was gone.

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