To the woman working the counter at the Mens’ Banana Republic in downtown Seattle on the afternoon of Sunday, December 23rd, I was not stealing a sweater from the store, though I can see why you would think I was.
It was odd for me to come up to the counter with two identical maroon t-shirts and a pair of jeans, but my wife bought me a bunch yesterday and I liked them. I wasn’t in love with the blue sweater jacket, however, so I stuffed it in a stray shopping bag and figured I’d trade it for more shirts and pants. My confusion was not feigned when I handed you the long scroll of a receipt from her shopping trip with a vague “I’m sure it’s on there somewhere”, plus I figured there was no point in trying to identify the particular line item because you were going to look it up with a bar code anyway. When you couldn’t find any mention of the sweater, it was in a spirit of genuine befuddlement that I began poring over the receipt with you, verifying all the identical “PL ST SW VEE” entries and asking if “ST POCKET BIN” referred to a darker sweater jacket with chunky buttons. Finally when you decided that yesterday my wife must not have been charged for the item, the what-a-crazy-world lilt in my voice when I said, “I guess I’ll keep it then” was my attempt to acknowledge the weirdness of the situation, but I could sense your hesitation, and when you said, “I’m trusting you on this” in a voice that indicated you weren’t I just made some kind of noncommittal noise and smiled awkwardly. There is no commonly accepted social convention for relaying the information “I’m not actually a thief even though I know you think I am”, primarily because that’s just what a thief would say.
Mostly I felt bad for the awkward spot you were in. On the one hand, I’m sure you could care less if someone steals from Banana Republic. But on the other hand it’s galling to have the actual act of stealing involve that someone telling a lie directly to your face. Particularly when the liar in question is playing the affably harried shopper role a little too perfectly and dressing up his story with suspiciously detailed recollections about the size of sweater buttons. Except in this instance there was no lie. You did the right thing. And I–who am generally too honest to have much insight into this arena–got a sense of what it would take to be a great con artist. You would have to move beyond mere confidence in yourself to a place where you were empathizing with your mark, sincerely wanting them to put them at ease, not just suppressing your inborn decency but redirecting it to your own ends. It would have to be all about them.