I wasn’t planning on buying a new car that day yet I thought I’d look while the trade-in value for my old car was high. I’d had a decent chat with the salesman but then the sales manager got involved. He launched from the manager’s desk and came across the lobby, sizing me up as he closed in—an older woman by herself. Was it my imagination or were his hands actually rubbing together?
Most of us know we hold biases and prejudices whether held consciously or not. Maybe some of this is based on experience, but most preconceptions are probably molded by cultural or familial stereotypes. We separate Us from Them, the powerful from the weak, the dangerous from the safe. We have innumerable categorizations. The computations our brains do is astonishing and with each additional variable we recalculate. I’m guessing I looked like a passive old lady to the sales manager. If I’d come in with a man, he’d make a different calculation. If a younger woman had been with me, other assumptions would have been made. If I’d been wearing expensive clothes and jewelry, different calculations. If I were not white, more assumptions. I doubt you could develop computer software that simulates the rapid sifting and sorting we do to assess who has power in a situation; it’s too complicated.
We expect our first impressions are accurate and behave accordingly. Even in the face of contradictory evidence, we may continue to hold onto inaccurate beliefs about an individual. At work, one way this plays out is the way in which new employees are quickly categorized as winners or losers. You know who the growth opportunities go to. The person stuck in the lesser-than camp doesn’t get the same chances and we’re harsher critics when there’s a mistake. Being recognized for potential isn’t likely to happen. Even the demonstration of skill can go unnoticed because it doesn’t fit with the preconceptions. Early on, one can fall from grace like a stone and get stuck.
Companies spend a lot of money on training to put a spit-shine on every customer interaction. But as the person in need of a service or product, how many times have you felt treated as if you’re not worthy of time, attention or dignity? The actions may be subtle, like looking past you as you wait or giving a snippy or bored response to your request. Or you might get an aggressive lecture about what you will or won’t be granted by those holding the keys to the kingdom—or the car. As the hapless customer, you may not be able to analyze exactly what happened, you just know you don’t want to return because it felt lousy.
So, back to that day in 2020 when automobile inventory was poor (for all the reasons you remember) and the sales manager assessed me as easy prey. He told me I’d be lucky to get a car at sticker price never mind the color and options I wanted. He insisted my trade-in wasn’t worth what I knew it was. Since I didn’t hand him my resume, he wasn’t aware that for years I’d taught negotiation skills to Washington state employees. I subscribe to classic win-win negotiation, he was into power plays. But because I’m well aware of them, they don’t work. I was clear about paying fair value while allowing for a profit.
Once in a while you’re in a situation where you get to challenge a person’s prejudices, be seen, and teach them something in the process. I owned that negotiation, not him, and maintained my integrity. My car’s name is Ruby. I paid a fair price and received excellent trade-in value on my old car. However, I won’t go back there in the future because it was too much work and felt crummy. I’d rather give my business to those who treat me as a capable and deserving customer from the get go.
I bought the pictured T-shirt as a prompt that regardless of the packaging, I deserve to be taken seriously. It’s a reminder for you, too. You do merit notice, so do not hesitate to be visible. Challenge others’ assumptions based on insufficient or superficial data, their biases or prejudices. And let’s remember to give others the same courtesy.