The Obnoxious Art of Self-Censorship



If he spoke in text, his voice would print in all-capital-letters. He is on the autism spectrum, and he works at the large grocery chain next door. He’s a large block of a man who, nearly every day, visits our store. If he were a cartoon, you could draw him entirely out of squares and rectangles. I say man, because we only recently found out he wasn’t in his late teens. He turned 40 last summer, he proudly shouted. He got a video game he’d been waiting for and his mom took him out to a fancy place for dinner.

I’m not telling you his name because it’s none of your business.

He loves video games, and loves to watch YouTube channels featuring other guys playing the same games he likes. We might be his only point of social contact outside his home (except for his job bagging groceries).

He proudly gushes information like a faucet with its taps turned full: the day’s sports events (mostly the Redskins and the Nationals), production news about the up-and-coming comic book superhero movie, the fascinating-to-him fine points about the video game he’s playing. Sometimes he will tell us, in his loud tone, an extremely off-color joke or quip he’d heard on the radio.

Then, as suddenly as the same faucet, tightened down, he announces “OKAY, SEE YOU LATER,” and he walks out the door. He will repeat his “HELLO, HOW ARE YOU TODAY? ARE YOU ENJOYING THE WEATHER?” trope to several customers on the way out. Friendly guy.

He’s nice. He means well. We all like him. Yet sometimes, he can make himself a bit of a nuisance, hovering over the bar for dozens of minutes while we’re trying frantically to clean or make drinks.

People not on the spectrum are trained to pick up on social cues like avoiding eye contact, ample sprinklings of “mmhmm” on your side of the conversation, turning your back to do a task. None of this will deter our noisy friend. He’ll merrily shout about his games until his conversation faucet dries up. Or, sometimes…

Sometimes, I have to explain to him “We’re very busy right now. We don’t really have time to talk, okay?”

“OKAY, SEE YOU LATER,” he will say. He’s perfectly equanimous, unruffled by the embarrassment.

Yesterday, I stupidly read a bit of celebrity gossip: the actor John Goodman is no longer talking to fellow-actor Kristen Wiig. You heard it here first, folks. That’s right! Kristen Wiig, whom I’ve never heard of, is no longer being talked to by John Goodman, whom I don’t care about. Apparently, she told him to shush in the midst of a conversation. In a tantrum fit for a nine-year-old, he said “Fine! I’m not talking to her anymore” and that’s the end of that relationship. I think the word I’m looking for here is “butt-hurt.” It’s a good word.

My friend at my store doesn’t get that way.

You ask him to please stop shouting sexual innuendos, thinly veiled as jokes about semen (that he heard on the radio) to our female employees? He’s more than happy to comply. He just doesn’t get the rules of conversation. Ask him to defer the conversation about Dwarf Fortress (possibly the least visually-attractive since MUDs were played on Unix in the 1980s)? He’ll definitely make the effort. He just needs to be reminded about when it’s appropriate or inappropriate to say stuff.

I’ve seen and heard customers make fun of him, sometimes with a harsh word to us, but we protect the guy like an pesky little brother. WE can talk smack about him, but you? You’re not allowed to. He’s one of us, here.

I’m balancing these thoughts with another guy, an outsider, who came to fix the wiring that serves Internet to our customers.

He was friendly enough, I guess. I don’t remember what he looked like, except that he was probably in his 50s and his hair was thinning. We were buzzing with activity. One supervisor was training a guy. Our boss was using the office computer. Our internal wireless network wasn’t responding so I had to do inventory on paper, which takes extra time and makes me grumpy. And this guy kept interrupting to chat. He kept offering the supervisor training advice in front of her young padawan. He produced anecdotes about his work situations that might apply to the trainee’s greater understanding of customer service. Then, two sentences into his diatribe, he would be on a bluetooth call. He’d be speaking to someone in Seattle, or Delhi. Then he tried to give me useful hints about unloading the freezer, you know, a task I’d only been doing for 2 years.

At one point he scooted our ladder while he was standing on the 6′ rung, with our trainer sitting almost directly beneath the ladder. The whole thing jerked to the left, with an enormous swift motion. And what a jerk! He shouted at someone on his Bluetooth headset who wasn’t understanding an email. “*AT* coffeeshop dot com.”

He muttered “damn ragheads,” (hopefully to himself) and looked over to me, as if I should be sympathetic to his plight. No, Sir. You see, I’m generally not a loudmouth racist.

He was a complete boor. Thankfully I only had to deal with him for an hour. I never said a word about his behavior because I new he would leave eventually, and I wanted our Wireless Router not to catch fire later that evening.

I meet all types at work. People who insult, slander, who are just plain loud, who offer advice they consider useful, people who are militantly political, religious, people who are angry their local team lost in the playoffs. I’ve dealt with people with psychological and mental disorders, and people who are just plain obnoxious.

I’ve learned to let it slide. I’ve also learned to be a bit firmer. I’ve learned to ask customers to quiet down. Maybe it’s the librarian in me. Twice, I’ve had to ask a customer to keep it quiet, and they’ve stamped out, vowing never to return. And both times, they returned a year later, to point out to me that they aren’t coming to my restaurant. Then they bought a few drinks and left.

But my question remains. What makes my first guy different from John Goodman? What makes him different from the second guy? When should I be assertive and when should I let things slide? The old proverb says “the customer is always right.” Maybe, but the customer is also occasionally obnoxious. Is it my job to fix it when I see it?


4 thoughts on “The Obnoxious Art of Self-Censorship”

  1. I generally try to live and let live, but there are times when it is appropriate to ‘shush’ others, and I’m not embarrassed to do it occasionally. I think you can trust your instincts on this one–they usually seem to be pretty spot on! 😉


  2. As always, love the article. I’d say, since you ask, and I’m prone to handing out advice, that you can probably judge when the customer is merely annoying to you (don’t stop them, they’ll be gone soon) and when they are having a negative impact on the ambiance for other customers (do stop them). One bad apple tossed will make the other apples a happy pie, right? As for your spectrum friend, people, once they realize who he is, will feel magnanimous in their “tolerance” of his peculiarities. They will actually feel better about themselves for allowing him to be himself. We people are strange ducks, to be sure.


  3. I’ve wondered about those who might view me as boring, too quiet, and totally creepy for my own erring on the quiet side…The view is always different depending on where you stand!


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