I was with a friend at Trader Joe’s in the Union Square area of Manhattan, looking for a certain sort of vegetarian cheese. The first thing you should know about this supermarket location is that it is so popular that the line to the checkout counter is frequently long enough to wrap all around the store and come near the entrance of the store, with employees holding signs to indicate where to enter for various numbers of items per shopper. That made it sufficiently difficult to find anything without bumping into several people.

The next item of interest is that this location has a huge selection of cheese. Combine that with the first fact and you have an extremely awkward shopping experience — almost like trying to find a needle in the most enormous haystack surrounded by other haystack lovers. I therefore suggested to my friend that it might be prudent to ask an employee where we might find the cheese we were trying to find.

I always have trouble finding just the right employee when I have a question. I know that I really should just in all reality go up to any employee with a name tag and ask them but I always feel that I have to find just the right person who will know how to help me. I don’t have the most scientific method for finding the “right” person — I primarily rely on a sense of intuition.

I found the person I determined would be able to help us, already talking to a coworker. I waited until he was finished discussing business matters with his colleague and approached. I asked him if I could ask where something was in the store and he said he thought he recognized me from somewhere. He stuck out his hand and this is where, I later found out, the odd or awkward situation took place. I was holding a bag in one hand and a hot cup of tea in the other. His hand hung out for a moment or two before he asked what I wanted to find.

He quickly was able to show us the exact location of the cheese we wanted to find and not too much longer we left, having determined that we didn’t want to wait 40 minutes in line to purchase one piece of cheese. As we walked out of the store, my friend asked me if I was oblivious to the fact that the man wanted to shake my hand.

I really was, actually. I have never been in a situation where I have gone up to an employee of a store to find something and said employee wanted to shake my hand. Having never encountered anything like that, perhaps, I was thrown off and did not know how to react. I still am feeling bad about the situation because that is how I am — part of me thinks that I let the person down by not reacting in a friendly manor and just went after what I wanted.


  1. Gordon!
    We are shocked at your obliviousness. When the guy offered his hand — you just ignored it or what?
    Next time your hands are full, offer your elbow instead. I learned that trick from the magical Dan Drew at Rutgers-Newark. Dan is the Main Technical Designing Man in the theatre department and everyone wants to shake his hands for all the favors he does all day long — and his hands are always full of stuff because he’s fulfilling favor requests, and so when he offers his elbow, it’s a natural, extended, response to touch your elbow back.
    I find a lot of immigrants love to shake hands. I believe it’s part of their naturalization in the USA. In the USA you shake hands for any sort of expression of friendship, in the UK you double air kiss and in Asian countries a form of bowing is the commonly shared body semiotic of respect.
    I am always offering my hand for the shaking — many times in place of a “Hello” or a wave.

  2. I think it was really the context that threw me off. When I go to ask someone for directions, I think of it in terms of my long life history of asking for directions: approach, ask, thank kindly. I will have to offer an elbow next time if my hands are full — and make sure to go back to the shop and get my hand out to him 🙂

  3. Gordon! Most men don’t ask for directions. I think that’s where everything went wrong. Men shake hands and punch each other in the shoulder. We don’t ask for cheese. We let the cheese find us. Heh!
    You’re also right about the ridiculous line outside Trader Joe’s. It’s there all day and all night long. I don’t get it. Why have such a tiny store and punish your customers that way? The Brooklyn store is no better. Oh, if we could only order online…
    One of my NJ students brought a giant plastic jar/bin of Trader Joe’s Animal Crackers to class and shared them. Cinnamon. Vegan. Addictive! I couldn’t stop eating them…

  4. Hey Gordon, sorry! Poor you and the poor employee who thought he might know you!
    It happened with me once, so I know what you are talking about. The corporate world everywhere usually follows “shaking hands” as etiquette – India is no exception but there are some belts where people still get baffled when/ if a woman extends her hand.
    I did it with a client once…..he probably was not expecting me offering my hand so he did a “namaste” and immediately realized the goof-up and offered his hand to me but by that time I clubbed my palms together to do a “namaste” back…it was hilarious.
    I prefer to shake hands always because a firm/ weak handshake tells many things about a person…

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