Today I Was ‘Uppity White Trash’

(Written 1/31/11)

Seriously.  There is a marketing lesson for solo practitioners in the following story.  Please keep it in the ‘business dress’ context for which it was designed and do read the comments :-)

Let me set the stage. We are in the middle of historic snow storms in the Northeast.  Everyone is bundled up for arctic chill.  Outrageous outfits, hoods, boots.  Nothing even really matches.  It’s about keeping warm.

Add to this I just had oral surgery which has left me with a goose-sized egg on my jaw in brilliant hues of purple, black, green and yellow.  I also can’t speak very well.  (Ergo, why I am not at LegalTech in New York.)

So, today I finally ventured out to the supermarket to stock up on food because of another ‘dangerous’ monster storm coming.  I confess, with everything going on I looked like a battered Walmart shopper.  Nothing matched except the black on my bruise and my snow boots.  I was layered with clothes, no make-up or jewelry, hair in a pony-tail.  Even I frightened myself when I looked in the mirror but I had to get to the surgeon for a quick check up, the supermarket and then pick up my son from school.  No time for fussing.

Surgeon gave me a thumbs up.  Now off to the supermarket.  I encountered some strange looks because of the bruise.  It really did look like I got popped in the face.  Going through the cashier’s line was uneventful.  It was when I realized I had been over-charged on multiple boxes of cereal which were on sale that the fun began.

A manager was called over.  He was probably 19.  With my slurred voice and bruised face I explained as best I could these items rang up at $4.39 when they were on sale for $2.99.  Their price accuracy policy said I get one of the item for free and the rest at the sale price.  We walked over to the aisle and I showed him.  Because I couldn’t speak clearly and it was loud in the store my voice was slightly raised.  He told me in a very annoyed and condescending voice the sale price was from last week and shouldn’t have been there but he was going to give me the sale price anyway.  What a guy!

We walked over to customer service where the customer service person looked at my face.  She did that barely discernible stare for a second and then looked away.  The manager started to explain what was going on. He was explaining the problem incorrectly which would have resulted in the wrong credit.  I kept slurring, ‘excuse me’ but he kept talking and talking with his back turned away from me.  Finally I tapped him on the back and said, ‘Hello?  I’m talking to you?’  He continued to talk like I wasn’t there.  I was getting highly agitated now.  And as my husband likes to say, ‘you don’t want to get my wife mad.’

Finally he left and I started to explain the problem correctly.  The customer service person started to talk to me very loudly and slowly as if I were both deaf and incapable of comprehending.  Now I’m seeing red.  She was doing some convoluted math to give me the credit but kept coming up wrong.  I explained the right way to do it.  She told me she can’t do it my way.  I said fine and then asked her just to see if when she did it my way we came up to the same number.  We eventually did.  There was no pretense of politeness on her part.  No ‘please sign here’ or ‘please swipe your credit card.’  She just bossed me around like a subordinate.  After the transaction was completed she dismissively said, ‘have a nice day.’  And then as I was walking away (drumroll, please) she muttered under her breath, ‘uppity white trash.’

Needless to say I had a very lengthy conversation with her supervisor and this customer service representative is not going to be happy.

Yes, this is still a marketing lesson.

We are correctly or incorrectly perceived, judged, and treated as we present ourselves.  I looked bruised and battered and dressed to unimpress.

As solo practitioners you don’t have the luxury of not dressing appropriately and presenting appropriately in public ever because everyone you meet is a potential client or referrer of clients. They will make snap assessments about you whether you like it or not.  Better they make a snap positive assessment.

Conversely, you don’t have the luxury of making these judgments about your potential clients because looks can be deceiving.  You don’t have the luxury of being rude or treating a potential client or referrer of clients with anything less than respect because you don’t know who they are, who they know, or how they can influence your professional or personal life.

A solo practitioner is ‘on’ 24/7.  This doesn’t mean you can’t relax.  It just means you have to take my former roommate’s advice, the one who used to wear pearls for a quick run to the convenience store.  She would say, ‘Susan, always look your best when you leave this apartment because you never know who you’re going to meet and how they can change your life.’

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17 comments on “Today I Was ‘Uppity White Trash’

  • I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve sat on arbitration panels and as the african american, the other attorneys when presenting their case refuse to give me eye contact as if I’m not even present in the room. As my father always taught me, never judge a book by its cover. Oftentimes the person in the room that may be appear to be the least important can oftentimes be the most powerful.

    • I test this hypothesis often :-) I could tell you stories of how I’ve gone into stores to spend sizable sums on items like furniture where I know the salesperson works on commission. I will be dressed ‘low key’ for a variety of reasons (primarily because I don’t want an upsell). They make a snap judgment and walk away and send me to someone else usually less experienced..who then ends up getting a wonderful commission while the more experienced salesperson is slack-jawed!
      Same thing when I’ve purchased cars. Maybe it’s a game I play and it never fails to amuse, I confess.

      But the lessons are there. How we look and behave as the service provider is not negotiable. How we treat those who seek our service is not negotiable.

      • I’ve experienced that as well. I’ve visited the same place in full make-up, and in “mom” mode, and the difference in service is marked and shocking.

      • That reminds me of the episode of the Cosby show where Dad goes with Theo to buy a car. He’s in his typical college sweatshirt, but Theo messes up and says “but you’re a doctor and Mom’s a lawyer” in front of the salesman, resulting in the inability to talk down the price.

  • I remember that lesson as a student in my voluntary bar’s Professional Development Academy. Initially, I thought the presenter overstated the importance of appearance, even in your personal life. But, after I repeatedly ran into people I knew while shopping, 30 miles from home, I completely understood, and began to heed his advice. No more sweat pants, and if you run into me at the grocery store at midnight, I will at least have on eyeliner, mascara and lipstick.

    • Men are generally a lot less conscious about their own appearance. (And we’re also less conscious of female appearance…or at least, of the little details that help make up the big picture. Just because we approve of the overall effect doesn’t even mean that it’s registered with us whether or not you’re wearing any makeup, or what color your shoes are.)

      I think that’s partly due to nature, and partly due to the fact that we can get away with it more easily. Especially nowadays, when slacker fashion is so prominent and widespread.

      But even in, say, Ronald Reagan’s world — where even if it was a weekend, even if it was late at night, even if you were alone, you wore a tie and did not take off your jacket in the Oval Office –some rumpled trousers here and mismatched socks could easily have a charming, rather than an off-putting, effect. Especially if the man was a bachelor, and his shambling qualities tickled the feminine impulse to care for and/or fix him…

    • I think men are conscious of their appearance, its just that in most cases it’s not necessary to give a damn about it.

      As far as I can tell, men become conscious of their appearance when it becomes a strategic advantage, the whole “dress for success” thing.

      Then again, were it not for my wife, I’d be wearing checks & stripes to work.

    • Yes.

      I write this sitting in my office with a polo shirt and Khaki’s. Of course, I have been used to wearing uniforms for the last 20 years . . . it is much easier when you know what the expectation is rather than having to guess at what is now “fashionable.”.

      • My husband is a firefighter. He’s only known one outfit for 25 years. He knows the image it presents and those he meets know what to expect from him. Yes, it does make life easier :-)

  • I sold eyewear for a decade before going to law school. I used to make the mistake of pre-judging a customer. I’d take one look at the clothing, accessories and insurance plan of the person selecting their new eyewear and decide whether to suggest frames from the designer lines or the budget lines. One day when I was busy helping someone else, a woman came in looking much like you just described yourself that day, Susan. She self-selected the most expensive frame in the place with every feature available. Her new eyeglasses set her back about $700 and she never batted an eye.

    I spent a summer in a wheelchair, and endured people asking my husband what had happened to me – looking right past me. Evidently they assumed that my broken leg in its neon cast mean that I was also incapable of coherent speech.

    It’s been a difficult transition going from my student/mom uniform of jeans and a top with a ponytail and no makeup to always feeling “on stage.” I am treated much differently in many places now wearing a suit or slacks and a blazer than I was in my jeans and tshirt.

  • Dear Susan, we missed you at NYC meet-up, and I know why, now. And I am so angry for those employees! But, somehow, I’ve learnt to deal with it after many years in NYC. yeah, like you, I enjoy making use of situation rather than trying to change.
    One thing I cannot do as a lawyer that I really want to do is dye my hair. I did that once during college years, and the result was pretty disastrous.

  • I used to travel in he must comfortable cloths i had. I still do this for car trips. But on one trip when traveling on business, I found it inconvenient to change into my travel/comfort uniform, and wore my suit. I was in my early thirties at the time, but looked younger. i suddenly found myself being treated differently. I suppose people wrote me off as unimportant college student when i was in sweats or jeans, but business woman expecting better service when i wore a suit. I still prefer not to fly in a skirt and heels, but I wear nice shoes instead of sneakers, non-jean pants, and a blazer, and the respect continues. I haven’t noticed it in stores, but perhaps I’ve come to expect that kind of treatment and am accustomed to it now.

    It stands to reason that potential clients and colleagues would see me differently, too.

  • Guess that I am, again, late to the party. But I would like to comment nonetheless.

    I wrote about this myself,only in reverse:

    Many years ago, after I graduated from law school but before I was barred, I had the opportunity to sit on a jury. It was an experience every attorney should try to have.

    Regardless, the short version is that the case was a negligence casein which the plaintiff fell from a horse at a dude ranch. His theory of liability was that the dude ranch knew or should have known that the horse he had been assigned required a skilled horseman. Plaintiff had never been on a horse.

    Plaintiff and his lawyer were from Beverly Hills. Both wore Italian silk suits, 18-carat gold Rolexes on one wrist, 18-carat gold bracelets on the other.

    Defendant corporation was not present, but its lawyer wore a frayed suit with a cowboy yoke and polished old cowboy boots.

    The jury loved Defendant’s attorney and resented like heck Plaintiff and his attorney. Even though Plaintiff’s attorney was spot on, it was obvious that the case was going nowhere. Plaintiff dropped the suit before Defendant ever had a chance to put on its case.

    Moral? Know your audience.

  • The post was dead on point.Criminal lawyers are always being judged by those in the gallery. As I write my comment, my car had to be towed out of a ditch in Nashville. Court was closed and I sit in my office with boots , jeans and hat. Snow causes poor dress in the South.

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