In my earlier post, I used the example of Beavis and Butt-head as an illustration of how men always overinfer women’s sexual interest in them. You may think that Beavis and Butt-head are buffoonish cartoon characters, and real men and boys don’t behave like them. Well, you’d be wrong, and I have a Federal class-action lawsuit to prove it.

In January 1998, the American supermarket chain Safeway (which is unrelated to the British supermarket chain of the same name and similar logo, which has recently been acquired by the rival chain Morrisons) started implementing what it called the “superior customer service policy.” It required all Safeway employees to look customers in the eye and smile. If the customer paid by check or credit card, cashiers were required quickly to scan the customer’s last name and thank them by their last name, as in “Thank you, Mr. so-and-so, for shopping at Safeway,” while looking at them in the eye and smiling.

On a personal note, I was living in Palo Alto, California, during the summer of 1998, while I was Summer Scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and I did my grocery shopping at a local Safeway. I was very amused that, at every checkout, the Safeway employee would stare at my credit card for 30 seconds and mutter “Thank you, Mr.... umm... Mr. Ka... Kana... umm... Mr. Kanazaina... for shopping at Safeway.” At the time, I had no idea that it was a newly enforced company policy.

I suspect Safeway’s “superior customer service policy” was invented by some management consultant with an MBA from a leading business school. True to the microeconomic model of the singular and unitary actor dominant in business schools, which makes no distinction between men and women, Safeway’s policy makes no distinction between the sexes. In the policy, there are no men and women, only employees and customers. It required both male and female employees to greet both male and female customers in the identical, “friendly” manner.

As it turns out, the policy worked very well roughly three-quarters of the time, between a male employee and a male customer, between a male employee and a female customer, and between a female employee and a female customer. However, the policy backfired when the employee was female and the customer was male. When the female employee gazed deeply into his eyes, smiled, and thanked him by his name, the male customer “naturally” assumed that she was attracted to him, and started harassing her by following her around on and off work. In other words, many of the male customers turned into Beavis and Butt-head. Eventually, five female employees had to file a Federal sex discrimination charge against Safeway to force it to stop this policy, which the supermarket chain did when it reached an out-of-court settlement.

This fiasco was an embarrassing and costly episode for Safeway. It could have been avoided entirely had the management consultant who devised the “superior customer service policy” had any knowledge of evolutionary psychology in general, and Haselton and Nettle’s Error Management Theory in particular (although, to be fair, the theory had not been invented in 1998). Any evolutionary psychologist could have predicted that Safeway’s new customer service policy was a disaster in the making, because all men are essentially Beavis and Butt-head. Only economists would be so blind.

To anticipate your question, the answer is, no, I did not follow the female Safeway employee around in Palo Alto. Obviously, she was not truly in love with me if she couldn’t even remember my name.

About the Author

Satoshi Kanazawa

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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