Integrity Matters
January 21, 2004

Age question not designed as privacy invasion

Question: (S-014)

Dear Jim:

Earlier today, I pulled into the car wash, rolled down my window and requested their $10 service. The efficient attendant, a young woman, was smiling - and then came the bomb. She asked if I was qualified for the senior citizen's discount. Not knowing how to respond, and being in my mid-50's, I asked what age one needed to be for the discount. When she said 65, I wondered how beat up and tired that I looked. Should this question be asked? Is this business operating with integrity when it allows employees to risk embarrassing folks with age-sensitive questions and assumptions?


So, you look a little older than you had thought. Do you remember how old that people who were even 45 looked when you were quite young? Was her question about your age intended to intrude upon your privacy or be attentive to ways her company might help you to save a few dollars? For the number of times this question about senior-citizen discount qualification steps on toes, there are probably 10 times more instances when the customer appreciates the concern and the thoughtfulness of the car wash ownership.

The integrity issue is yet to be assessed. Since our column speaks of eight integrity-centered attributes, let's review this event and make note, with italics, how behaviors can be surveyed against standards of appropriate conduct. What really matters in this situation is not so much the young person's question about age, but rather your response. Did you accept the discount, knowing you did not deserve it? The integrity-centered response is the truth. You are not 65 and ought not to accept the offer. If you did, were you being honest? No.

Pushing ego aside, were you gracious in how you treated the employee? She attempted to assist a person who she believed deserved a little extra attention, financially. She was attempting to be professional and productive. Did you demonstrate respect and discipline with reference to how you responded to this person? Did you thank the person for trying to be helpful? Did you control your own negative emotional reaction, recognizing that your uncertainty and insecurity about your appearance might not accurately reflect the motivations of either the person asking the question or the organization that believes the question about age ought to be asked? Were you kind?

The circumstances in which we find ourselves might not do as much harm to us as can our responses to them. It is not simply what happens; it is how we handle things that reflect our character. As the older participant in the encounter, and perhaps even the wiser, were you able to exhibit the right behavior? It is not appropriate to react and shake this employee's confidence. She was doing her job by carrying out her company's policies. She behaved with integrity. Did you?

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