Perils of Profiling

April 09, 2010

Recently I was profiled and, as a result, treated differently as I as leaving Walmart.

I’m an introvert and as such do not readily engage with people I don’t know. Retailers who employ greeters to say something to every person who enters or leaves the store put those of us who are not wired for comfortable social interaction on the spot.

Typically when I enter Walmart I try to avoid having to interact with the greeter. If there are other people entering at the same time I will position them between myself and the forced cheerfulness of the “Welcome to Walmart!” The situation at Best Buy is more egregious as their greeter is basically behind you once you are fully in the store and his or her greeting forces you to stop and turn around to acknowledge it. Walking through that greeting always makes my skin prickle - in spite of being introverted I have been socialized to respond when talked to. Couple the resulting on-the-spot awkwardness with the frenetic energy in Best Buy and you understand why I only rarely venture into the store any more.

I digress.

After going to Walmart for a couple items late one evening recently, I was headed toward the exit when the greeting wished me a good evening. I wasn’t in a social mood, and really didn’t want to have to accept another well-meaning but intrusive verbal interaction with a stranger. So I didn’t even look at the greeter. Instantly she shot off her stool and intercepted me at the door. Her demeanor had changed from were-all-friends-here to anger and suspicion. She demanded to see my receipt, asking the question so fast it came out as, “Ineedtoseeyourreceipt!” I had to ask her to repeat herself, and she even more emphatically said, “I NEED TO SEE YOU RECEIPT.” Her manner was aggressive and her entire attitude was accusatory.

I showed her the receipt for the mild, orange juice and cat food and kitty litter I had bought and paid for at the register immediately in front of her greeter post, and she made a big show of verifying that all four items in my cart were on the receipt. After discovering that my lack of response to her “Good evening” didn’t mean that I was steal the Walmart crown jewels, she thrust the receipt back and me and said “Okay.”

Just because I choose not to talk to people, just because I am not social, just because it was late and I was tired and grumpy, just because I didn’t act in the prescribed Walmart way, I was profiled as being suspicious and potentially up to no good.

While I think that proper behavioral profiling performed by well trained professionals may be the best way to determine if someone is actively engaged in activity they shouldn’t be doing, I think that improper understanding of human traits and actions results in misunderstandings like the one I experienced at Walmart while buying cat litter. My experience is nothing compared to what anyone who appears different has already experienced. My experience at Walmart is nothing compared to what our government has subjected millions of travelers and visitors to our country to in the years since 2001.

But, my experience is a cautionary tale that merely telling everyone to be suspicious and to report unusual behavior isn’t enough and isn’t right.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.