Bias in the bottle shop

Last Sunday, for the first time in my life, I was refused service at a bottle shop. The charge: purchase with intent to supply a minor.

I was momentarily speechless. Then I started to assure the cashier he was wrong. I had no intention of supplying alcohol to a minor, and couldn’t understand why he’d conclude that I would.

And then I realised there was no point. I had no power in this situation. The cashier (who was only just beyond being a minor himself) had made his decision about my intentions. Arguing or complaining would make me look guilty or foolish. The best option for me was to simply leave with dignity.

I felt more outrage than the situation warranted. It was, after all, just a small retail transaction, easily completed somewhere else. I recognise that my outrage is based in privilege: it’s so unusual for me to believe I’m the victim of bias, that it stings when it happens.

A few things interest me here. Firstly, what was it about me on Sunday afternoon that made the cashier conclude I was about to break licensing laws? Secondly, can it teach me anything useful about noticing and calling out bias?

There was nothing remarkable about my alcohol shopping last Sunday. I went to my local bottle shop, taking my 15-year-old son with me (I grab any opportunity to get him away from his screens!). I hovered in front of the fridges for a while, and eventually chose sparkling wine and cider. My son waited for me by the soft drink fridge, and we then had an extended conversation about what size soft drink I’d agree to buy for him. This conversation happened right in front of the cashier, and we were the only people in the shop.

When I took the drinks the counter, with my son by my side, the cashier asked for my son’s ID. That seemed odd – particularly as my son is very clearly a minor – and I promptly explained that my son is 15 and had no ID on him. I was the one purchasing the alcohol, and my son had no need for ID.

I realise the cashier had no way of knowing that I’m familiar with the literature about underage drinking and alcohol harm, and there’s no way a 15-year-old will be offered alcohol under my watch. When I consider the situation from the cashier’s perspective, here’s what I see:

  • My state of dress was pretty ragged – about what you’d expect on a Sunday afternoon when it’s about 340.
  • My son may have looked like he was dressed for a party. He has an unusual dress sense, preferring long pants (even when it’s 340) and Christmas t-shirts (except on Christmas day, of course).
  • I was purchasing cider and sparkling wine, both of which can easily be seen as kids’ drinks.
  • I took a while to make my choice and my son hovered near the soft drink fridge – perhaps we looked as though we were trying to bend the rules.
  • We had a conversation about soft drink costs and bottle sizes quite near to the cashier – perhaps we appeared to be trying to act the part of ‘innocent’ customers.

Whatever went on in the cashier’s mind on Sunday, his conclusion was wrong. There was no particular damage – other than a dent to my pride that someone would think badly of me and a hint of fury that a young cashier would have any power over my actions.

But the reality is that many people experience these biases every day – in all sorts of circumstances and with consequences that are much more far reaching than mine. If someone is being paid to assess evidence, make conclusions, and act to implement either law or policy, there are going to be many times when their conclusions are wrong. If the person is asked to report on the number of supposed offenders they catch out, the likelihood of their conclusions being wrong must escalate.

I don’t have any great solutions here, other than to suggest we all need to take the time to ask questions, listen to the answers, believe what people tell us, try to see things from multiple perspectives, and try to understand what leads us to make decisions. I guess it’s a call for slower, more thoughtful decisions, rather than the rapid conclusions our society so often demands. And it’s a reminder to myself to be more careful when I’m in a situation that requires judgements and conclusions.