On Being Mistaken for a ‘Worker’

Variants of the following situation have, I think, occurred in many people’s lives here in the US. (I have been on both the giving and receiving end, so to speak.)

You walk into a store (or perhaps a restaurant), perusing its offerings. You do not find what you need; you are confused; you need assistance. You see someone standing around, unoccupied; they are not wearing a uniform or anything like that. For whatever reason, you assume this person is a store employee, and ask for direction or assistance. You are mistaken. This person is not an employee.  Matters now get interesting.

Your respondent tells you, sometimes curtly, sometimes politely, ‘I don’t work here.’ You react as if poked with a cattle iron and electric prod combined, even as your hand flies up to cover your mouth in dismay: ‘I’m sorry!’ And you rush away, mortified, determined to never commit that particular faux pas again. The person you have dared assume was a store employee might also move away quickly from the locale of his embarrassment, wondering what accursed luck had led to this confusion, wondering what they had done wrong. Did they look slovenly or unwashed? Do they look servile?

(In my description of these kinds of encounters, I do not think I have exaggerated excessively. Some twenty or so years ago, I went with a girlfriend to an Indian restaurant for dinner; she was wearing a sari. As we waited for our table, a young man walked up to my girlfriend and asked her for a table; she politely, and with a grin on her face, replied she didn’t work there. You would have thought the lad had been shot, the way he almost doubled up with pain, flushed red, apologized and quickly walked away.)

This species of especially embarrassing social encounter has led to multiple safeguards to prevent its recurrence: in more established commercial enterprises, employees wear name tags or uniforms, and conversely, their customers have learned to be more cautious, prefixing their questions with a very (very!) tentative, ‘Excuse me, do you work here?’

No one it seems, likes being mistaken for a worker. And no one likes to be in the business of mistaking a non-worker for a worker. We worry that we might offend someone by mistaking them for a lowly employee of the business we are patronizing, and the targets of our putative scorn are offended that someone has dared confuse them with those who are there to serve them. The primary sin here is class confusion: our class has been mixed up with someone else’s.

We live in a society that ostensibly aspires to, and sometimes achieves in some limited domains, an egalitarianism of sorts; we supposedly ascribe ‘dignity’ to labor, to wage work; we supposedly recognize that today’s lowly are tomorrow’s esteemed. For isn’t the road to the top available to anyone and everyone? But, I think, these little run-ins show us we’ve got a long way to go till we are ready to accept being confused with a ‘worker.’

4 thoughts on “On Being Mistaken for a ‘Worker’

  1. As you correctly pointed out, one of the effects of this “workers must be identified at all times” thinking are the name-tag-and-uniform-wearing practices — especially within less snobby, or less fancy, stores and restaurants. From personal experience, I can tell you that few things feel as gross and uncomfortable as a poorly-fitting, (usually polyester!) uniform, in which you have to run back and forth, carrying heavy plates of food and drink — all while smiling and being “pleasant” and “welcoming.” Yeah, as a high school student, I did not last long as a waitress in a mid-brow restaurant in Littleton, Colorado — in part because the thought of putting on a uniform that was three sizes too big, itchy, misspelling my name, and smelling of mediocre cooking filled me with what I only later came to understand as existential dread. The really fun part was when some of the customers, trying to be cute? funny? assholes? would call me by the name on the name-tag (instead of the much-preferred “miss” or even “waitress”) like I was their buddy? girlfriend? servant-girl? But the management thought that this horrid uniform added a wonderful, “home-like” quality to this sad little place (because, you know, at home apparently everyone wears name-tags) — and it make us look like “members of the same team!” After a little while….I told off, in no uncertain terms, a particularly obnoxious customer who thought that adding “honey” and “sweetheart” and “babe” to my name made the experience that much more special for all of us. And because I am Russian and have a deep dramatic streak, I quit on the spot, in front of everyone. My next job, at an arty movie house that served espressos and biscotti and hardly required shoes, let alone a uniform, fit me much better!

  2. Something that might be implicit in this post (if the girlfriend-in-a-sari story is anything to go by) is the little matter of race. When we assume somebody is a store employee, is that person black/brown, and does that influence the assumption? In America, the answer is often yes. Likewise, when we’re taken to be employees, it’s that much more awkward and embarrassing if we happen to be black/brown. The potential for offence, and the reason for offence, are both that much greater.

  3. I started in search for writings on this topic because this recently happened to me; being mistaken as a worker that is, and I was livid. I was upset mainly because this is not the first time this has happened to me. I was standing about 5 feet from a store worker at Old Navy as she was assisting me by calling another local store that had a clothing item in another size. As I waited I browsed the impulse items close to the registers. I noticed a small child about 2 years old looking up at me, I smiled at her and turned to see who she was with. Her dad was searching for clothes nearby. A few seconds later, he approached me (I thought to ask for fashion advice, as that happens often as well). But he then asks me if we have the shirt in his hand in any other color. “I don’t work here” I replied. He rushed off just as you described and went to another non-white employee for assistance. I sat there stunned that this happened yet again and as always I was offended. The worker who was assisting me gave me the info I needed about which store had the size I needed and I went to look for my friend. I passed the guy again and couldn’t help but ask him what made him think I worked there. He said “I don’t know, I just saw you standing there and I didn’t see a name tag”. Yes!!! He said these exact words. And I just walked away as I let his stupid response sit with him. To state the obvious, I did not have on a name tag but he still assumed I worked there. Even with the employees all wearing salmon colored shirts that day and name tags, he thought little Black me worked there wearing my army green military-style jacket and jeans. I can’t help but to assume this was a race thing. He’s white, I’m Black, therefore my job should be to serve him?? That’s how I took it. Every time I’ve experienced this, it has been a white person and like you said, they run off after being told that they’ve been mistaken. They have racially profiled me and that racist guilt embarrasses the hell out of them.This situation bothered me so much, I actually dreamed about it.

    It wasn’t until I read this post that I ever wondered why I was so offended by being mistaken for a worker, especially now, given the fact that I’m unemployed. I’ve worked retail for most of my life and I don’t think there is any shame in it. I can only say that I think I was more offended because the people who have ever mistaken me for a worker were almost always white (Spanish speakers have also approached me), but never by a Black person. I don’t believe I’d be as offended if approached by a Black person. Given America’s racial history of Blacks in servitude to whites, I can’t help but to connect this behavior to white privilege and “superiority” which is why I become upset and refuse to let it go un-addressed.

    As a shopper, if I don’t see a name tag on a person (if their back is to me) I’d ask if they worked there before I ask them about the product, that’s really all it takes to avoid embarrassment and prevent my blood from boiling.

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