I purchased a new bicycle for my 12-year-old daughter this month and received a tongue lashing from a salesperson in return.
The Springfield salesperson asked if my daughter was interested in a “cross through” bike. I had no idea what he was talking about. I was familiar with mountain bikes, road bikes and hybrids. But I’d never heard the term “cross through.”
I told the salesperson I didn’t know what a “cross-through” bike was. So, he rolled one onto the sales floor. The top bar dipped down toward the pedals.
I replied, “Oh, you mean a ‘girls bike.’”
Apparently, I’d trod into a linguistic minefield.
“We don’t ascribe genders to inanimate objects,” the salesperson said to me in a rather derisive tone. “Sometimes elderly men prefer ‘cross through’ bikes so they won’t have to lift their legs so high.”
I explained to him that when I was in college, I was a pretty serious biker but I had never heard the term “cross through bike.” At this point he eyed my gray hair and said, “It looks to me like it’s been a long time since you were in college.”
In case you think this was some young whippersnapper, the salesperson appeared to be in his 60s. I was contemplating leaving this family-owned business and buying my daughter a bike at the big-box sporting goods store across town.
But as the salesperson and I conversed, my daughter was busy ogling the bicycle in question. She said she loved it and it was the perfect color. I swallowed hard and made the purchase.
I made a decision to extend this man some grace, even if he wasn’t willing to do the same for me. I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter. And even though I was being treated rudely, I didn’t necessarily disagree with what the man was saying.
Just because I have always heard such bicycles referred to as “girls bikes” doesn’t mean that is the best terminology.
In my decades in journalism, I’ve tried to use inclusive terms such as “police officer,” “firefighter” and “pastor” rather than “policeman,” “fireman” and “clergyman.”
A transgender teenager works at a store I frequent. I address the employee by their new name and by their preferred gender. It’s a matter of kindness. They always gives me a big smile.
And no that doesn’t mean I endorse a particular agenda. I just believe when in doubt it’s best to be kind.
In the same vein, the salesperson at the bike shop might have received a better response if he applied some kindness to his own message. He could have said something like, “When I was growing up, we called them ‘girls bikes,’ too. But now we call them ‘cross throughs’ because some older men also prefer them.”
That would have been a polite way to have said it without being ageist or ascribing bad motives to someone using an outdated term.
When my parents were growing up, the word “negro” was the term that educated, polite people used. When the 1970s rolled around, my siblings and I had to keep reminding my dad that “Black” was the preferred terminology.
We reminded him of this gently. Repeatedly. After all, he was not being mean spirited in clinging too long to the word he had been taught was proper.
As the lexicon changes, extending grace to others is helpful. And rudeness rarely wins allies to your cause.
There is a difference between being oblivious and being hateful.
Oftentimes when someone misspeaks or uses an outdated term, it’s done out of ignorance. It’s best to inform rather than condemn.
• Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.