There’s this old saying about “when you see something, say something.” It’s a pretty powerful statement when you actually think about it. Think about how many things exist today just because people stay silent. Racism. Homophobia. Transphobia. Hate crimes. It happened to me in a Waffle House in Tennessee, a harsh reminder that came via tragedy this week.
My fiance and I decided to grab a quick, cheap breakfast at the Waffle House just a mile down the road one Sunday morning. In the South, you have to get out before the church crowd or you’ll wait until 3pm for breakfast so we rushed to get dressed. Sweatpants, hoodies and beanies/backward hats are pretty much our go-to for anything that doesn’t require jeans. I remember laughing as I caught a glance of myself in the bathroom mirror and thinking “man, I look like such a lesbian.”
*Ding* The sound of the bell on the door always catches people’s attention. If you’ve ever read about Pavlov’s Dog, you know why. We’re conditioned to look when we hear a noise, especially a bell. But in that Waffle House in Tennessee, so many people weren’t just conditioned for noises. A lot of them were conditioned for “different” too.
It was obvious. I felt the stares as we sat down at the only two open seats directly in front of the register. If you’ve been in one Waffle House, you’ve seen them all. The grill and the bar area take up one wall and the middle section is a half square with a register in the middle. Booths surrounding the other 3 walls. Sitting directly in the middle gave everyone a great view of the obvious gay couple in their domain but honestly, at this point I was used to it so I tried to brush it off.
As our usual tradition, we looked at our menus and discussed what we would share. Whether the hash browns should be smothered, covered and chunked. (Only Waffle House people know what that is it. It’s toppings.) Yes, we’re one of those couples who buys one of everything so we can try it all and pretend we spent less money and consumed fewer calories by sharing.
At this point, I’m a little surprised no one has come over. Usually we have drinks already because these waitresses do not mess around. They hustle.
15 minutes pass and I’m getting angry.
20 minutes pass and I want to cry.
Customers around us are noticing that they have drinks, then food, yet no one is talking to us. I wave a little to try to get their attention to no avail. The customers around us look down when I try to make eye contact. While I’m usually a really talkative person, the most I can do to hold in the emotions is to stare into the wall.
30 minutes pass and I look to my fiance and say “let’s go. Now.”
I remember the most minor details about the time we waited there that morning. I especially remember crying in the bathroom when we went to the Cracker Barrel next door, wondering if I’d be able to gather myself before they announced my name. The answer was no, by the way.
As I reflect on this moment, I can’t help but think about all the ways and the people this happens to every day. The people whose consequences were so much deadlier than missing a meal. People who missed a life. And I wonder. I wonder why people have by nature been scared to stand up for what’s right.
I wonder if we as humans tend to believe that people who are bold have an advantage on us. There’s something about being brave, putting it all out there and then being rewarded with the silent trust of acceptance. I believe we enable this behavior by allowing it to happen to other people. We make it ok with our silence – in our offices, in our friendships and in our families.
We make people’s bad behavior ok, too. We make excuses for assholes who are and always will be snakes.
Katrina Kibben is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Three Ears Media. For most of Katrina’s career, she has been a marketer living in a recruiter’s world – listening to both sides of the talent equation to understand the real issues and find solutions for engaging and hiring better people. Today, she uses her technical marketing know-how and way with words to help both established and emerging brands develop and deliver content that fuels smart recruitment marketing that makes the right people apply.
Katrina has written for Monster.com, HR.com, RecruitingDaily and many other digital publications. She is a recognized leader in recruiting and employer branding who speaks regularly at conferences around the world.