No, that is not the opening line of a joke (although you know we do love jokes). It is something that we do pretty much every week. It is often one of the best parts of our week, when the project we’re working on is all anticipation and we have a whole weekend ahead of us to focus on DIY and blogging!
We’ve even been known to take strange accessories with us, like random fuzzy plastic cacti that we intend to transform into chic side tables inspired by Johnathan Adler.
I bet many of you all do the same. (Frequently go to home improvement stores, I mean. Not build accent furniture out of cheap southwestern decorations.) I also bet that many of you are women, and this is when it gets a little less funny, because we’ve been noticing more and more lately just how annoying it is to be female in one of these stores.
True, maybe we’d have more credibility if we didn’t bring strange plastic objects, but even when behaving normally there is frequently the feeling that we sort of don’t belong. It is not overt or offensive, but it does cause us to go in with a bit of a chip on our shoulder and a feeling that we have something to prove. Whether it is being offered help no less than five times (by employees and non-employees alike) just walking down one single aisle of the lumber section or being told you should hire a professional to do something that a mere mortal can most definitely do (yes, thank you, we can install door knobs ourselves), well-meaning people persist in making us feel out of place.
Having too much help or dealing with condescending comments is certainly not the worst thing in the world… BUT it is not the best thing, either. It wasn’t until we started sharing these stories with each other, and experiencing them together, that it really became apparent to us just how pervasive this sort of thing is during every trip we take to [insert major home improvement store here]. So we wanted to share a few of our stories with all of you, in case you are experiencing the same!
“I Should Have Known!”
Remember when we both made tables at the end of the summer (Naomi’s sofa table and Sage’s coffee table)? Well that involved an epic trip to Home Depot, and without fail a set of entertaining-but-also-full-of-microaggressions interactions. Here’s Sage’s explanation of one such incident.
I was definitely anxious about taking on my coffee table project, and the most daunting part was the prospect of cutting the steel for the frame. I didn’t currently own anything that could cut steel, so while at Home Depot I decided to ask for some advice about what kind of saw to buy.
I found an employee in the power tool section, and proceeded to explain the project to him. He looked skeptical and said that cutting the metal would be hard, as though that was an answer. I explained that it wasn’t a question of whether I would be doing the project but how, so could he suggest what he thought would work best? I also explained that I was happy to invest in a tool, but that I hoped it would be useful for other projects in the future. I suggested that a jigsaw was on my short list of options, but he recommended an angle grinder while also repeatedly warning me that angle grinders were hard to work with and I could really hurt myself.
After he walked away, I found another employee for a second opinion, as I was not feeling encouraged by the “you probably can’t do this project but if you must you should use an angle grinder but that will probably hurt you badly” advice I had gotten the first time around. This second employee was a much better listener, and agreed that a jigsaw would do the trick and also be a versatile investment. He helped me pick out a good saw for my needs without any implication that I would most definitely fail or maim myself, which I appreciated.
I also needed to get metal cutting blades, and so I suggested that we go back to my cart so I could show him the steel I was planning to cut and he could recommend the best blade for that. We got back to the cart, and right then Naomi was walking up to put some things for her project in the cart as well. The employee looked at her, and recognized her since apparently he’d also helped her earlier. His reaction was priceless:
“Oh, two women working on projects! I should have known you were here together!”
“Is She Married?”
One of the most blatant examples happened recently when Naomi went to buy Sage a combined Solstice/birthday gift to help out with her kitchen renovation:
I went to Home Depot after work, and that was probably my first mistake, because I was wearing heels and a professional skirt and blazer. My plan was to get Sage a power tool because she has totally out-shone me in past gift exchange experiences, for example by getting me a circular saw and the courage to use it.
I didn’t do a ton of research in advance because I was short on time, so I started out in the power tool aisle. Almost immediately (as usual when I step into that aisle) I was approached.
“Can I help you, miss?” He was an older man, a little round, and looked friendly.
“Yes, thank you! I could use some advice. I’m here to buy a present for my friend who is really into DIY.”
“Great! What sort of thing is he looking for?”
“Well. She already has several tools. She has a table saw, a circular saw, and a jigsaw. She has a dremel. And, of course, she has a drill and stuff like that. So I’m looking for a power tool to kind of round out that group and do something that she can’t do now, especially because she’s starting on a kitchen renovation. I was thinking, maybe a brad nailer?”
His smile widened. “Oh! A Lady!”
“Yes. So what do you think would be the right next step for that tool collection?”
“Hmm, let’s take a look around.” He proceeded to walk with me out of the power tool aisle and into the neighboring aisle where the hand tools were kept. “Does she have a nice screwdriver set?”
“Yes. She has screwdrivers.”
“Oooh, how about a socket wrench set? I bet she doesn’t have one of those!”
“I bet she has all sorts of tape measures?”
“What about a nice set of clamps? Does she have clamps?”
“Yes, she has clamps.”
After several more suggestions, he acknowledged: “Wow! So she must be really into making stuff?”
“Yes. I mean, she’s not a contractor, but she does some DIY home improvement and builds furniture and things like that.”
“She sounds like my kind of woman! Is she married?”
“Yes. She is married. She is about to start on a kitchen renovation, actually, so I was thinking a brad nailer might be good for trim and the detail work.”
“Yes, it would be! That is a good tool.”
He took me back to the aisle with the power tools, back to the section with the brad nailers. He suggested several in a row that didn’t look that powerful (including one that was actually a manual staple gun that could also shoot small nails). Finally, I asked him what he used, and we settled on a set with a compressor, and three brad nailers for different sized nails, the same kit that he had in his own shop. I said, “I’ll take it.”
He went to get me a cart, and I started to lift it off the stack but he urged me to wait. “I’ll get that for you! I don’t want you to hurt yourself!”
I let him lift it onto the cart for me.
“Now,” he said, “if you go to this check out counter right here, and just out those big double doors, you can pull your car right up there and I’ll load it in for you!”
“Why? Can I not take the cart into the parking lot?”
“Oh. No, you can. But it’s heavy, and I can lift it for you.”
“Oh, I’m sure I can manage it.”
It wasn’t that heavy.
It actually wasn’t until I was driving home that I started to get frustrated about the conversation. He was being nice and helpful the whole time, and was clearly doing his best to help me find what I was looking for. But there was just something not connecting. I found myself wondering how that conversation would have gone if I had just used the pronoun “he” in my initial question.
“I Don’t Work Here, But…”
Another bizarre trend in home improvement stores is the tendency of random men who don’t work there to approach us to offer advice and help. Usually it is perfectly kind and likely well-intended, but I doubt anything about our demeanor is calling out for their assistance. They walk up like they’re the world’s gift to you, saying, “care for some advice from a non-employee?” This doesn’t happen in any other type of store.
So what do they think is going to happen? Something like this, an actual scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which Xander (textbook “nice guy”) lives the dream of this sort of interaction (until the woman turns out to be a demon who tries to kill him):
Xander’s standing around in a crowd of customers watching a green-aproned store employee cut a length of pipe with a huge power tool. He looks around and notices a pretty woman looking at the spools of rope on a display. Xander walks over to her, taking off his safety glasses.
XANDER: Hi, can I help? You seem kind of confused.
WOMAN: (holding a rope, looks at his clothes) You aren’t wearing a green apron.
XANDER: Confused, but sort of randomly observant.
WOMAN: Sorry, I just mean… you don’t work here, right?
XANDER: No. Right. Just helpful. I’m Xander.
WOMAN: Lissa. (they shake hands) And I guess I could use some advice. I can’t even figure out if I’ve got the right kind of rope.
XANDER: That depends on what you need it for. Something like functional around the house, or, you know, recreational. (Lissa raises her eyebrows and grins) By which I mean, for example, boating or mountain climbing—not for tying someone up for sexy, funky fun. (Lissa giggles) In conclusion, rope can be useful in various ways.
WOMAN/LISSA: I have a kayak.
XANDER: Again with the random. I like it.
LISSA: Sorry. I need to store my kayak. So I was thinking maybe I could sorta suspend it from the ceiling in the garage with ropes and a pulley or a winch thing.
XANDER: Not a bad plan. You’ll need stronger rope than that. Wanna have coffee with me later?
XANDER: Oh, you’re the only one that gets to be random? (Lissa smiles)
It is nice to offer help to people who look confused in stores if you’re an expert. But if you wouldn’t offer that help to a guy, why would you offer it to a girl? Also, try not to make bondage jokes.
“All By Yourself?”
And then there’s the time when Sage just couldn’t take it anymore….
I was at Home Depot buying the hardware and lumber for the shelving unit to build in Sam’s study, and had one of those big flat-bottomed carts full of wood and other supplies.
I was wheeling my cart out of the shelving hardware aisle, when a fellow customer stopped me and asked, “Wow, are you building all that all by yourself?”
I turned to him, smiled sweetly, and exclaimed: “Yes! It’s amazing, women can do things too!”
He was flustered of course, and explained that wasn’t at all what he meant. I just kept smiling and walked away. And then of course I felt terrible, because I know that isn’t explicitly what he meant. But what do you think the chances are that if I looked more like my husband or my dad that a random stranger would have approached me and asked that? I think slim.
If it seems a little odd to be concerned about well-meaning people offering help and (seemingly) supportive comments, we get it. In all of these situations we get the products or the answers that we’re looking for. But we do it under constant reminder that we’re a bit of a novelty. The theme here is: if you wouldn’t say it to a man in a home improvement store, don’t say it to a woman in a home improvement store.
So, what do you think? Does this happen to you, and do you have any stories like these? What do you do?