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I wouldn't put it past a Zurich airport shopkeeper being "just plain stupid". That (psychological) explanation doesn't invalidate the game-theoretic explanation - which doesn't necessarily reflect the shopkeeper's conscious or premeditated strategy. It could be that being just plain stupid (or racist) is, game-theoretically, an optimal "strategy" (in this situation). This would explain why stupid people continue to be shop-keepers at airports (because their stupidity is successful at selling handbags).

Andre - you know Zurich and I don't - perhaps this is indeed a case of stupidity pays? B.t.w., it wasn't an airport store but a store at one of the more exclusive shopping areas in town - i.e. some place a tourist wouldn't just wander into.

Thank you for this post. Sometimes I try to solve certain situations by trying to objectively analyze myself and your post has added something to my analysis of myself.

I have been in shops and had a salesperson look down on me and tell me a high priced item and I bought it (or thought hard about buying) to show them I had the money (whether I did or did not). Not proud of this, but I am trying to be objective about how I know I have behaved.

Another explanation is that I heard one account where the clerk said she did not want to embarrass Oprah with the high price; probably 99% of the people coming through the store could not afford that purse. So, the clerk was actually really nice and trying to help the customer.

Who knows?

Oprah has risen to the temptation to claim racism though, quite possibly.

Years ago my wife and I used a London taxi to get to Heathrow. When I happened to mention the lousy service we had had at a chain of hotels we had stayed in there, the cabby spoke of them as "cheap and cheerful". Which they weren't especially. On reflection (but not at the time) I realised that this was just another way of tugging money out of a tourist's wallet.

And if a London cabby can do this why not sales staff at an exclusive shop?


"Cheap and cheerful" is an idiom. The cabby likely presumed the poor service reflected a low cost. I have no idea how this was 'just another way of tugging money out of a tourist's wallet.'


I had a few hours in Zurich during off time at a conference and there are many tourists in the upscale shopping areas. The stores are beautiful and put on a bit of a show (gorgeous windows etc etc) for the plebs. All I bought was chocolate - wanted to stay married when I got home ;) - but I looked at much stuff that would have cost me months to a year's salary, or more.

I do accept the goading argument as legitimate. But really, this is shockingly rude in any case - and just as stereotyped. It replaces "People of African extraction can't be rich" with "African want to flaunt their wealth".

It reminds me of this episode of A Different World:


50 years ago Mother took us kids to the swimming pool in Luton England, and afterwards for lunch at a fairly fancy restaurant nearby. When we entered the restaurant, the waiter said something like "You might find this restaurant a little too expensive Madam". It might have been because we were all dressed a bit scruffily (people dressed up for English restaurants in those days) and so looked a bit too poor for the restaurant, or it might have been a successful marketing ploy, because there is no way Mother would have walked out of that restaurant after that. The "Zambian perspective" kicked in hard. Mother told the story to her friends and family, but unlike Oprah we weren't famous so it never made the newspapers. Classism maybe. Racism definitely not, in this case.

This is an interesting example of how racism persists. Whether the clerk personally thinks blacks are inferior and generally incapable of purchasing the item she is selling is not the point. If she was not displaying, she was playing upon (and thereby reinforcing, if only slightly) a racist stereotype.

Seems to me preferring to believe people are not stupid would exclude you from many human experiences.

Keni "Seems to me preferring to believe people are not stupid would exclude you from many human experiences."

That's true. Economists tend to lead sad and lonely lives. We blog because real live humans are just too complicated.

Chris J : "But really, this is shockingly rude in any case - and just as stereotyped."

Agreed. I wanted to share Margaret's reaction because she has a genuine African perspective, and that perspective doesn't get heard very often.

I think it's important - and probably should have said more clearly - that this perspective completely discredits the "the shop assistant was just trying to be nice" argument that's been heard so much.

I had a salesman try that "you couldn't afford that car" close on me once at a Chevy dealership. I was a young white male, so it wasn't a racist thing.

However, it didn't work very well - I bought a new Mercedes instead, and made a point of driving over to say hello to the Chevy salesman afterwards.

Seems likely a case of thin skin and a great way to get publicity. Game theoretic, Oprah has no downside risk re-interpreting what may be perhaps a rude or calculated comment into a way to get back into the headlines?

I dunno, and really in my list of 100 things to do, doesn't rank.

From my mother, via email:

It happens to us all. Once we were in a silver shop on one of the Gulf Islands where an artisan was selling handmade stuff – he told us that we could not afford to buy anything presumably because we were looking scruffy as were camping with our bikes !!!! Sometimes I feel that no one is clothes shops cares whether I buy or not which is particularly annoying when I am actually looking for something. This is usually the case as I rarely just go “shopping” unless I have something specific in mind

Mick - No one knows how other people experience the world. On several occasions I've had people say to me that they feel the question "where are you from?" is racist - that it implies someone how the person doesn't belong, isn't a "real" Canadian. They're often astonished to discover that I get asked exactly the same question.

Though I don't think Oprah can be blamed for the fact that the international media has been all over this story. She didn't make such a big deal of it.

"Seems to me preferring to believe people are not stupid would exclude you from many human experiences."

Oh, I wouldn't worry. Economists are generally eager to credit any amount of stupidity in another individual, which is the plane from whence most human experiences spring. It's only in aggregate that they insist we cannot be stupid (though some may concede that we are "bounded.")

"We blog because real live humans are just too complicated."

I wouldn't lay it on quite so thick if I were you. A malicious person could make a colourable case that there is all too much truth in that caricature.

"No one knows how other people experience the world."

A pity that you didn't think of that before you wrote "this perspective completely discredits the "the shop assistant was just trying to be nice" argument."

"50 years ago Mother took us kids to the swimming pool in Luton England, and afterwards for lunch at a fairly fancy restaurant nearby."

I don't think it's fair to compare discrimination against inappropriate dress to discrimination against race. Personally, if a restauranteur is worried that I will have a discouraging effect on his other customers because of my dress, I would pause to consider whether I am the one who is being inconsiderate. But I could hardly take the same view if the issue were the colour of my skin.

Phil - the distinction that's sometimes made between things that a person can change and things that a person can't change. Clearly one's clothes are in the former category and the colour of one's skin is, for the most part, in the later (despite the vast global market for skin lightening products).

That's an important distinction.

But there are things that a within a person's ability to change, i.e. their religion, that are prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms. And there are things that are not within a person's ability to change, e.g.. whether they have attractive or ugly facial features, that are not prohibited grounds for discrimination.

I find it interesting the number of people (o.k., three, so that's not so many) who have had the experience of being told "you can't afford this" at one time or another.

I think there is also a stark distinction between changing one's attire (into something cleaner and less shabby) and changing one's religion. The former involves a change that typically is not life-altering (in fact, people are usually, though not always, happy to be well dressed) while the latter strikes at the very roots of a person's identity.

On a related note, Frances, what do you think about gender? Is that something that's within a person's ability to change?

While Crooked Timber and WCI are very different kinds of blogs, there was also an extended discussion of Oprah's treatment over on one of their threads as responses to this comment.

RepubAnon: as J.P. Morgan once said: "If you ask the price, you can't afford it." Maybe sellers should have a counterprinciple: "If you can't guess the income, you shouldn't be selling."

Fran R Wooley: a few years ago, one of my brothers was living in Vancouver. My parents would go there regularly to see the grandchildren. Sometimes, in heavily immgrant neighborhoods, a store clerk would ask "When did you immigrate?", a common question there. When she answered that her ancestor came in 1630, they would think she was laughing at her...So much for defining a real Canadian...

Experience in a luxury Montréal hotel 35 years ago: "If you're rich enough to have an American Express card ( note: a far more exclusive piece of plastic then than now), you're rich enough to speak english." The number of ways one can be a jerk is infinite...

Jacques Rene - I'm sorry for your mother's experience, but I can believe it. In school we were taught Parisian French (to the extent that we were taught French at all) - can you imagine Quebec school children being taught to speak English with British pronunciation? It was a real shock when I went to Montreal and heard a real Quebecois accent for the first time. I hope things have changed for the better in both provinces.

Even plebes in Switzerland know who Oprah Winfrey is. I think what Oprah has forgotten (if she ever knew it at all) is that sometimes the fact that something is "too expensive" has nothing to do with how affordable it is. I don't care how many billions Winfrey amasses - a handbag is a stupid thing to buy for 35 Gs. Maybe what the shopping assistant meant was, "Hey, Oprah - YOU TOOL - you can get this other handbag for 15 fewer Gs and get more ostentatious fashion for your shopping dollar."

Also, after how Oprah behaved in India, hearing her talk about racism is even more disingenuous than it used to be.

My mother had always a lot of fun with that. It was a good conversation opener and great fun was had by all. Just showed that some aspects of canadian history might be overlooked in newer parts of the country..In B.C, history begins around 1870 the way history here begins about 1530. Last saturday ,I visited the archeological digs at the Cartier-Roberval Park,


a settlement near Québec City dating to 1541...Not easy to visualize if you arrived 5 years ago, 5000 km from it...
As for the Amex thing, it's like Obama once said:"We're not what we want to be, we're not what we will be but we're no longer what we were." Apart from the usual Gazette(and Suburban) idiocies, the climate is way better than 35 years ago.

These aren't mutually exclusive concepts. Lots of marketing campaigns are racist or sexist or discriminatory in some manner. And they are usually also quite profitable. Just think about "Zack the Lego maniac"--part of a 1980s Lego campaign to rebrand the previously gender-neutral brand as an exclusive boys club. The campaign worked brilliantly. It was also sexist and excluded women from a truly wonderful toy that has been shown to have numerous benefits in child development including improving spacial reasoning skills, for example.

Matthew - ouch! Spot on with regards to Lego, too.

I had a car salesman use the old...You probably don't have the money to buy a vehicle of this caliber. He said, "Most of my customers are middle-aged and pay cash." I figured he was right and I didn't buy the car. Now I'm middle-aged and pay cash for my cars. Good salesman!

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