Don't stand so close to me
Finding ways to politely say, "please, back the f*** up"

Jennaye Derge - 08/27/2020
I’ve chosen one grocery store and one only to shop at during the pandemic. I’ve chosen this particular establishment because I feel like they’ve done a stand-up job taking the necessary precautions to keep employees and customers as healthy as possible. Notice, though, I did not say “safe” – sure as hell, when tensions are this high, no one is safe

Such were three people last week: me, the check-out clerk, and the man standing behind me in the grocery store line. The man who clearly gave no f***s.

The line we were standing in that day was equipped with a bright red stop sign that indicated that the man behind me should not approach the conveyor belt until I, the person in front of him, was gone. Much to my chagrin, he ignored the sign and approached me and the conveyor belt. Without wanting to actually say anything to him, I gave him my best, “what-do-you-think-you’re-doing??” look while smiling sweetly (under my mask) to show him that I’m nonthreatening.

I obviously didn’t do a very good job, because he started coming closer and tossed his groceries nearly on top of mine. I turned to the cashier and gave her the “what-does-he-think-he’s-doing??” look and, bless her heart, she understood.

“Sir, can you please back up and wait for this transaction to be over before you load your groceries?” she asked the man.

He grunted and started throwing his groceries even harder on the conveyor belt.

“Sir!” She shouted. “Please back up!”

Everyone paused. I looked at her looking at him and then I looked at him looking at her and when he stopped to look at me, I said timidly, “thank you,” as if to soften the blow of such an enormous ask.

The moment itself was pretty uncomfortable but not in the ways one might think. What made it weird was that I felt like somewhat of a Karen, or a whistleblowing square who abides by every rule to the “T” and expects everyone else to do the same. Yes, I wanted the man to back up and I had said so to the check-out clerk. But the thing is, I’m not a square, a sheep or “living in fear.” I definitely break rules where rules are made to be broken – I am a commuting cyclist after all – so I felt incredibly vulnerable when put in a situation where I know the rules shouldn’t be broken and the task is really simple: to just, please, back the f*** up.  

On my way home, I thought about this very mild incident. One that never really escalated nor resulted in verbal or physical abuse, and I wondered if there was such a way to ask someone to please back up without creating any sort of tension or hostility. A version where I didn’t have to walk away feeling like an overly sensitive nerd-square. A way to say, “sir, we are in a pandemic, and your bread is touching my eggs.”

I’ve tried a couple times this week to create that token llama space without even asking. I’ve slowly moved backward as the person talking to me slowly comes forward and I have to say something to the effect of, “yes, I am actually stepping back on purpose.” But just like my ex-boyfriends, they didn’t seem to understand my need for space and became inexplicably angry.

It all seems irrational, but can any of us be rational right now? Is there a world where you can kindly ask someone to take a couple steps back or respond with an, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I will respect the fact that either one of us could be carrying a rampant disease and I, of course, will back the f*** up?” Or, “My bad, I’m so sorry that I got this previous thing wrong and I will do/try again?”

Can we be rational in a world where we’ve been denied our vacations, our social parties, our friends and eating a meal at our favorite restaurant? When we’ve been cooped up inside or battling the tourist crowds outside? When it’s a million degrees, and we’re hot and on top of it all we have to weigh the burdens of our consistently irrational administration? Can we be rational? Can we be respectful?

No! Apparently we cannot!

So instead, we throw our groceries onto conveyor belts, tell others that they’re “living in fear” or get mad when we don’t get the hug we asked for. We expect thoughts and prayers to solve it all and then post memes and comments about it later online.

Nothing is rational right now, and I’m not sure what the best way is to ask someone to please back the f*** up. I don’t know how to have a civil and open dialogue with someone who is adamant about throwing their lunch meats on top of my salad mix, who brings armed weapons to peaceful gatherings or who wants to make this country great again, but will not tell me when “when,” was. For now, though, all I know how to do is smile under my mask, give the “what-do-you-think-you’re-doing?” look and hope that everyone will kindly just back the f*** up.


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