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Silent in Return for a Paycheck

Sarah's picture

Before I begin writing about my experiences of silencing/being silenced, I think it is important note that it was difficult for me to think of such a time, and the privilege that comes with that.  It privileges me because I can see myself as neither oppressor nor subordinated in this regard, at least on the surface.  When I think of silencing someone, I think stereotypically yelling “silence!” as we saw from many popular movie scenes in the youtube clip.  I would like to think that is hard for me to remember silencing someone because it is not something I do, but I am sure that is not the case.  Even if I haven’t directly yelled “silence!” at someone, there are probably times I have silenced a person or group either with an offhand comment or by being a bystander and not helping a person that I recognized as needing a voice (i.e.: watching someone be bullied).  However, memories of being oppressed are, in general, easier to conjure up than memories of being an oppressor. 

That being said, it was not easy for me to think of a time I felt silenced.  I grew up with a family that really respected honesty and also valued what I had to say (although I did have to say things in a manner that were considered respectful to adults).  Growing up in this environment has provided me a certain level of comfort and allowed me to feel okay bending (or even breaking) some rules because I felt my voice was important enough.  I am grateful for this at most moments in life, I am able to recognize my voice, and feel like it is my right to use it.

In completing this assignment, I began with the images, rather than with my personal experience.  The image of the bouquet of eyes is haunting to me.  It conjured up feelings of pressure, of everyone watching and having their own opinion, while I feel unsure.  Though many of the eyes don’t seem to be presenting angry or negative emotions, the sheer pressure of such a large audience the makes me feel immobilized and also guilty; what have I done that is causing everyone to look at me?    With these feelings in mind, I was brought back to an experience in which I felt silenced.

My first job was being a cashier at a CVS.  For every paycheck I got, 50% went into my savings account for college.  I felt proud of myself for having this job, but also felt like I needed it.  CVS was walking distance from my house, which was essential because although I had my license, I couldn’t afford car insurance.  I needed this job because I needed the money, and the need for money is ultimately what I think silenced me.

Anyone who has worked a customer service job probably knows the feeling of an invisible wall between you and the customers, one that suddenly make you a little less human to them.  People do things like talk on their cell phone while you ring in their items, don’t respond when you say “Hi, how are you?”,  don’t put things back where they belong because “that’s someone else’s  job,” and yell at you for things you have no control over.  One of the policies at the specific CVS that I worked for was that we carded anyone who bought cigarettes.  When I was hired, I was told that if I was caught not carding someone, even if they were clearly older than 18, I would be fired.  This policy annoyed, or even enraged, many customers.  There are several of anecdotes I could provide about being yelled at for this policy, but this one is the most memorable. 

A man came in with a veteran’s hat on and his car keys in his hand and asked to buy cigarettes.   I asked if he had ID.  He looked at me and said “Are you fucking kidding me?”  I said, “Sorry, I’m not, I can call up a manager if you like.”  He said, “I don’t need a manager, you little bitch.  I fought for this country, give me my damn cigarettes”.  I was thinking of mentioning that he had his car keys at hand, and that he should therefore have license, but thought better of it, and instead I called the manager.  He said he was in his office and because I didn’t want to explain this situation on the phone and directly in front of the customer, I walked to the office to explain what was going on.  My manager, who did not even look up from his computer screen said, “Just give him the cigarettes”. 

The only thing worse about being treated like you are sub-human by the customers at a customer service job, is knowing that the management does not support you.  It may seem ludicrous that a company would be so unappreciative of their workers, but the sad truth is that I could have been replaced in very quickly by either another high school student or an adult who was struggling to find employment.  It was an extremely uncomfortable position to be in; I already felt silenced and afraid because this customer had screamed at me, and in addition felt utterly unimportant and left voiceless by my manager’s reaction. 

I chose the image of the bouquet of eyes because during the incident and after it happened, I felt like a lot of eyes were on me and judging my reaction.  The eyes also represent that pressure I felt, knowing I didn’t deserve that treatment and feeling like I should speak out, but not doing so because of a (minimum wage) paycheck.   I see the eyes of other customers in the store, who said nothing when they saw and heard this man yell at me.  I see the eyes of my manager, cold and uncaring.  I see the eyes of my coworkers, sympathetic, but also concerned about keeping their job.  I see the eyes of my dad, who, when I told him what happened, seemed disappointed in me for letting someone treat me like that.  I see the eyes of the customer who yelled at me, trying to use his authority as his veteran to coerce me, and then sinking to the level of calling me, a 16 year old girl, a “bitch”.  I see my own eyes, looking at me, and knowing what I should do, but feeling like I had to keep this job.  The eyes all look at me silently, and at the point in my life, I was silent in return.



Anne Dalke's picture

On being silenced

You don't quite finish this story: what happened when you returned to the cash register? What did you and the veteran say to one another? More importantly: can you now, in hindsight, re-write what might have happened? How do you imagine yourself assuming voice in this situation? Would you talk back to the manager? or to the customer? or to your dad's disappointment? or to your own?

HSBurke and Hummingbird also wrote their stories in response to this compelling image supplied by jhunter. who said the image puts the self in the position of the object, giving time for self-reflection. That's not a bad thing!

What strikes me, too, is how VERY different this image--and this story!--is from your initial representation of silence, as clear, quiet, relaxed and peaceful. It's certainly become a much more complex phenomena for you than it was when we began...and of course I'm looking forward to further complications!