Charlie had baseball practice at an indoor facility. Thanks to the pandemic, this meant I couldn’t wait inside, so instead I drove to McDonald’s to get burgers for dinner.
I ordered a Happy Meal for Charlie and the two cheeseburger meal with a large Diet Coke for myself. I asked for the cheeseburgers to be plain. I’m allergic to mustard, and pickles are the worst.
I collected my food through the drive-thru window and turned back down the road. At the next traffic light, I pulled a cheeseburger from the bag, took a bite, and discovered that it wasn’t plain. I took a sip of the soda to wash down the bite and discovered that the soda was regular Coke.
What the hell?
I was annoyed, but I also know that mistakes happen. I try to be gracious in these moments. I turned around, returned to the McDonald’s, donned a mask, and went inside to get the order corrected.
Thanks to the pandemic, I was the only person in the restaurant other than the employees. “Excuse me,” I said to the manager. “I have a problem with my order. It was supposed to be two plain cheeseburger and a large fry, but the burgers aren’t plain.”
I managed McDonald’s restaurants for nearly ten years. I’ve handled complaints like this thousands of times. It’s fairly simple:
Apologize. Correct the order. Apologize again.
But this manager took the bag from me and began examining the contents. First he removed the fries. “This is a medium fry,” he said. “Not a large fry.”
“Okay,” I said, a little dumbfounded. “But the fries aren’t the problem. It’s the burgers.”
One of the burgers was lying unwrapped in the bag, a bite missing, clearly not plain. He removed the other, unwrapped it, and said, “This one is plain.”
“Okay,” I said. “But the other one isn’t. And I’m allergic to mustard. It only takes one of them to kill me, so could I just get two plain cheeseburgers instead of one?”
I was now completely dumbfounded. In my entire life, I’ve never had a manager disassemble my food to confirm my story. Why would I ask for burgers to be replaced if they were already correct? Did this manager think I was trying to convert my medium fry to a large fry through some complex cheeseburger ruse?
Still, I was polite. I know mistakes happen.
Then he rolled his eyes at me.
That was when I lost it.
Maybe it was pressure of the pandemic. Or my frustration over not being able to watch Charlie’s baseball practice. Or the enormous amount of work I still had to complete later that night.
But honestly, I think it was just that I know exactly what to say when someone rolls their eyes at me. I have the just-right comeback. The perfect retort. I’ve used it many times, and it’s such a wonderful weapon to deploy. When armed with such a sharp, verbal sword, why not use it?
Also, I can’t stand passive-aggressiveness.
So I went off.
“Did you just roll your eyes at me?” I said. “What is wrong with you? If you have something to say to me, just say it. Don’t be a coward and hide behind a teenage eye roll.”
I definitely raised my voice. I didn’t yell, but I definitely sounded angry. The man turned and asked the kitchen staff for two plain cheeseburgers. As he waited, I added:
“I didn’t do anything wrong here. You messed up my order, which is fine. It happens. But you don’t get to insult me with some passive-aggressive eye roll and assume I won’t say something, because I will. Every single time.”
My voice was still raised.
A second later, he handed me a bag of food. As he started to turn away, I said, “Also, this is supposed to be a Diet Coke, and it’s regular Coke. Could you please fix this, too?”
He turned in a huff in the direction of the soda machine. One of those fast, exasperated turns made while shaking his head in disgust.
“That’s just as passive aggressive as an eye roll,” I said. “That dramatic turn and huff. I’m going to call out every one of your passive aggressive moves. Just because you’re afraid to use words doesn’t mean I’m not.”
This is actually a highly effective response to passive-aggressiveness. People deploy passive-aggressive responses in hopes of being able to express their opinions in a plausibly deniable way. They state their feelings without ever having to state their feelings, primarily because they’re afraid to say what is actually on their mind. The best response is to call it out. Openly object to their passive-aggressiveness and respond with words.
The manager returned a second later with my soda. I thanked him and headed for the exit. Affixed to the glass door was a sign that read, “How was your service?” with a phone number. I paused, dialed, and exited the restaurant as the phone rang.
I left a two minute message describing the incident. Then I hung up, started the car, and paused.
This was the next thought that entered my mind:
I was able to do all of that because I’m a white man. I raised my voice at that manager. I complained about eye rolls and dramatic turns. I called him a coward. My complaints were legitimate, and I stand behind my lifelong willingness to confront passive aggressive behavior with a direct, admittedly unorthodox, possibly aggressive approach. I call it out whenever I can because I think passive-aggressiveness is the land of cowards and micro-aggressions.
But I also acted like a crazy person. I raised my voice with absolutely no concern over the ramifications of my actions. I was probably intimidating. Probably unnerving. In my years as a McDonald’s manager, I dealt with many crazy people. With the exception of the men who put guns to my head during a robbery, I was never frightened by any of them. But I know that some of my employees were incredibly nervous around angry customers, and I was always sure to let my employees know that I would always handle the crazy ones for them.
It earned me a lot of loyalty.
But I was able to say all that I said, how I said it, and I was able to act in the way that I had acted without a moment’s hesitation because I am a white man.
It never even occurred to me that this situation could go sideways. That my actions might be construed as frightening or dangerous. That the police might’ve been called. That my physical safety was in jeopardy in any way.
That’s because it wasn’t. I’m a white guy.
Had I been a black or brown man, would those employees have felt the same way about my actions?
Had I been a woman, would I have been taken as seriously? Would I felt as safe saying all that I did?
Maybe, but I’m not sure.
I get to walk into restaurants and lose my temper without concern or consequences because I an a white man in America.
That was the thought lodged in my mind as I drove back down the road to Charlie.
It’s been the thought lodged in my mind for the past three days.
I stand behind my actions. I have no problem with how I responded to that manager’s inappropriate response to his mistake.
But I also must contend with the fact that I stand behind actions that are impossible for others because of their sex or the color of their skin. It’s privilege, pure and simple, and it sucks that I have it and others do not.
It also sucks that it’s taken me this long to recognize my privilege in situations like these.
Last year, a black man in Central Park politely asked a woman to leash her dog, and she called the police.
I yelled at a restaurant manager and walked out with two plain cheeseburgers and impunity.