arguingThe other day I had to run down to my local UPS store to send a fax (I typically use an e-fax service when faxing is required, but these particular documents were too large for me to scan at home).

There were a few people in line ahead of me. As I waited the store owner (franchisee? I don’t know, but you get my drift) smiled and said, “Hello,” to which I responded in kind.

He’s a short, stocky gentleman of Pakistani origin, and has seen me a few times, particularly as my citizenship was being processed.

The gentleman at the counter was sending a one-page fax. A young African-American dude, he oozed Rasta (dreadlocks) mixed with self-awareness (glasses and physically trim and fit).

There is a reason I’m telling you the ethnicities involved. Read on …

All was fine until, once his fax went through, the customer pulled out a $100 bill to pay .. his $1.25 bill.

At this, the owner was taken aback. He started worrying about having enough change for the customer. And then he said, “You should have known better.”

Boy, did the atmosphere change in what was, just a few minutes prior, a calm and collected environment.

The customer took umbrage. The owner took umbrage to the customer taking umbrage. The rest of us didn’t want to look at either of them, even though the customer kept looking at the rest of us for support (and didn’t get it).

It got to the point where the customer started shouting  – “That wasn’t very polite! You didn’t have to say that!” – and the owner started raising his voice as well.

Each was stuck on the point they were trying to make – “You didn’t have to say that!” “You should have had change!” – until the owner, who had been fumbling with his till drawer, managed to pull out change for the $100 bill and handed it over.

The customer left the store, still yelling, and could be heard continuing to rant well into the parking lot.

Once he left, the atmosphere in the store de-escalated relatively quickly. And then the rest of us went about our business.

This kind of scene is probably played out every day, in many stores and businesses. And the person on either end of the exchange probably thinks they’re right.

Personally, I think both had valid points, and both were at fault.

In my opinion …

The customer should not have tried to pay for a $1.25 fax with a $100 bill. That’s just silly, especially when you think of the fact that in that same shopping center, there is a Starbucks, a grocery store, a Subway and a bank that could have changed that large bill.

If I know I’m going to conduct a small transaction such as this one, I make sure I have change, or at least smaller bills … say $10 or $20 notes on hand.

The store owner should not have told the customer, “You should know better.” Regardless of the validity of that statement, it’s bound to get the recipient’s back up, because it’s an implied criticism of that person’s intellect/judgement.

And regardless of whether one is a long-time or one-time customer, should those servicing them really do that?

What I left thinking about, though, was this:

If the customer had looked different, and if the store owner had looked different, would the situation have been any different?

If the customer had been, say, a 60-ish white woman with obvious arthritis, would the store owner have said, “You should have known better” to her?

If the owner had been, say, a tall strapping Hispanic male in his 30s, would the customer have reacted any differently?

Much as we say we should treat everyone the same – and I do believe we should – I don’t think we do.

How they react to us makes a difference. How much effort they put into their communications with us makes a difference. And, yes, how they look makes a difference. Being a woman of color myself I’ve experienced this several times, and I imagine you may have as well.

Of course no one should be taken only at face – or skin – value. But it’s tough to get away from when it’s the first thing you see.

And one of our biggest challenges – and obligations, not just as people, but as business communicators, is in delving deeper, so that we go beyond mere face value and get to the root of what it is we need to help our clients and organizations communicate.

They say we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But the reality is that we do. And I wonder if that will ever change.

Image: o5com via Flickr, CC 2.0

What do you think? Do you think appearances make a difference? How has appearance impacted you, either on a personal or business level? What can we do to start moving beyond appearances? Do share, I’d love to know.