Braille Monitor                                                                                 March 2006


Ask Miss Whozit

A place card reads “Miss Whozit” and includes the Whozit logo.

From the Editor: In recent months Miss Whozit has answered reader questions about etiquette and good manners, particularly as they involve blindness. If you would like to pose a question to Miss Whozit, you can send it to the attention of Barbara Pierce, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, or email me at <[email protected]>. I will pass the questions along. Letters may be edited for space and clarity. In recent weeks I have heard several comments suggesting that I have invented the questions submitted to Miss Whozit. This is most certainly not the case. If no one writes with questions for her, this column will not appear. Here are several of the most recent letters Miss Whozit has received:

Dear Miss Whozit,

I use a system that I am sure is not unlike those of thousands of other independent blind shoppers. I enter the store, go to the counter, and request that someone assist me in locating the items I want to purchase. I ask for prices and sizes of the brands available and sometimes request information from the labels. You get the picture. This arrangement generally works well.

Often when I go to the counter, a line of customers is in front of me, so I patiently wait for them to be taken care of. I am perfectly willing to wait my turn like anyone else. This is the way it should be.

However, lately I have become increasingly irritated when shopping at the drugstore close to my home. Generally at this store two cashiers are working up front, and when I request assistance, one of them closes her register to assist me, leaving one cashier available to handle checkout.

Often, while I am shopping with the help of the employee who has volunteered to assist me, she glances towards the front and says something like, "Oh, my goodness, she has a line almost out the door. Wait right here while I help her take care of some of these people. I'll be right back."

I repeat that I have absolutely no problem waiting in line for my turn to be helped. But it truly irritates me to have to wait while my assistant runs back to take care of those who have come to the checkout counter after me. Such treatment feels to me like a statement that the time of the sighted people who didn't need individual assistance is more valuable than mine and that it is more important to keep them happy, comfortable, and satisfied than it is to treat me respectfully.

I would be more understanding if there weren't another cashier up front to wait on the line of customers. Last week this happened when I went to the drugstore. I waited a couple of minutes, but then, rather than be marginalized, I decided that my purchases could wait, and I left.

Miss Whozit, am I wrong to feel imposed upon? How should I handle such inconsiderate behavior? I wish to behave with courtesy, but I dislike feeling like a doormat.

Tired of Waiting

Dear Tired,

I regret to be the one to break the news to you that retail store personnel and sales policies are often unfair. Have you ever stood at a department store counter having the clerk tally the cost of your purchases, only to have the phone at her elbow ring? Invariably she pauses in the completion of an actual sale to deal with an enquiry that may or may not ever result in a sale. The waiting customer has no choice but to stand patiently gazing into space, unless he or she is prepared to walk away from the goods already selected.

We have probably all had this experience because it seems to be retail policy to answer the phone no matter what activity doing so interrupts. Your frustration is akin to that just described, but Miss Whozit is quite sure that no policy directive is involved in your problem.

The cashier assisting you was hired as a cashier. She has been trained to recognize that her duty is to keep the lines at those stations as short as possible. When a customer enters the store with a request for assistance in selecting purchases, she is willing to help, but I suspect that she does not consciously identify doing so as part of her job description. When she glances up to see a long checkout line, her reflex response is to help resolve the bottleneck caused by her absence from her post.

This is merely the difficulty as the employee perceives it. Miss Whozit suspects that most times this does not reach the point of concluding that the blind customer is not as important as those who followed him or her to the counter for assistance.

So the social problem facing you in this situation is to find a tactful way of making employees seek a fairer solution to their problem. Miss Whozit has found that teaching civility takes time and care. She cannot think of a way short of rudeness to accomplish your goal in one visit. But when the cashier returns to you to help you complete your purchases, you might try saying sweetly, “If you can’t be spared at the front to serve customers who came in after me, is there a clerk or manager whom we could get the next time to assist me? I am in a hurry as well, and it seems a bit unfair for me to have to wait until that entire line of customers has been served when I asked for help before all of them.”

Of course, the better a customer you are, the more likely the staff is to recognize the validity of your position. Miss Whozit can’t guarantee that you will reform the employees’ behavior, but you will have done what you could to make them think about how to treat all their customers more fairly.

Dear Miss Whozit,

I am a sighted member of the NFB, and I have always wondered about the etiquette of mentioning quietly to a blind person that his or her clothing has a conspicuous spot or a tear. My common sense tells me that that is the only way the blind person is likely to know about it in order to take care of it, but I don’t want to embarrass the person, particularly if nothing can be done about the problem.
On a related matter, how does one tell a blind person that his or her child is lying? For example, I was once seated at a luncheon table where a blind mother said to her child, “Did you finish your lunch? You may not have dessert if you didn't.”

The child immediately said, “Yes,” when in fact the plate was obviously still filled with food. The child looked at me as if to say, “Are you going to rat on me?" I remained silent so as not to embarrass the parent, but I was left feeling that by doing so I had undermined her authority.

Miss Whozit, I don’t want to appear to be condescending, but in the same situation I would want to know the facts. What do you think?

Afraid to Speak Up

Dear Afraid,

You get high marks for wanting to do the right thing, but low marks for courage. Your two dilemmas are quite different. When it comes to stains, tears, or even unzipped zippers and unbuttoned buttons, your course of action depends on when you notice the problem and what can be done about it. If a blind speaker is about to step to the podium when you notice that the marinara sauce from the pasta is decorating his tie, kindness dictates that you keep the information to yourself because the knowledge could accomplish nothing but making the gentleman feel at a disadvantage. If, on the other hand, you are armed with one of those handy little towelettes soaked in stain remover and if the spot can be attacked discreetly or in private, courtesy and kindness dictate that you quietly mention the problem and offer to help.

Certainly, if the blind person is about to leave for home, mentioning the problem and even offering to mark it with a pin or piece of tape for later treatment would be both kind and tactful. Unfortunately, some blind people are so embarrassed by receiving such information that they do not receive it in the spirit in which it was offered. But if you convey the information in private and at a time and in a place where the information can be acted upon, mature blind people will be nothing but grateful.

Your other question is an entirely different matter and a much simpler one. But acting constructively requires an instant response. In the situation you described, the sighted child was seeking to establish an alliance of the sighted against the blind. Alliances are crucial in dealing with children, and we adults need all the help we can get. You had better align yourself with the blind adult. If you had acted quickly in the case you cited, it would have been easy to achieve a healthy resolution of the problem. As soon as the lie was uttered, you should have commented cheerfully, “I don’t know what the rules are in your family, but leaving two-thirds of your sandwich and all of your salad wouldn’t count as finishing your lunch in my family.”

Mom would then have been in possession of the facts. Whether she would then have taken Miss Whozit’s position that those who play fast and loose with the truth get no dessert and no television that evening or decided not to create a scene, would clearly have been up to her. You would have delivered the message that you wouldn’t lend credibility to lying and that you respected the parent. It would have been up to the parent to construct such confrontations in the future in a way that the child couldn’t get away with lying. Civilization and civility are fragile flowers. As a conscientious sighted friend, you can help blind people nurture them. As one civilized adult to another, Miss Whozit thanks you.