A few weeks ago, I was at a supermarket self–service checkout. Out of the blue, a well–dressed, middle aged gentleman came sailing through the supermarket exit and began rummaging through my grocery bags, seemingly without a second thought. He peeked at first, then pushed his hands into the bag and began inspecting the cans. I was lucky it wasn’t the bag with fresh vegetables.

As an IT guy, my first thought was “I was not programmed for this”. I couldn’t even relate or empathise with the person to find common ground; I had absolutely no idea what would compel someone to rummage through my grocery bags.

Seemingly unable to find what he was looking for, the gentleman gave me a mocking glare, pulled his hands out, and walked away. The Woolworths staff had finally seen what had happened, though naturally they assumed it meant I’d stolen something. After wasting an inordinate amount of time verifying the contents of my bags, they were gracious enough to let me leave with what I paid for.

We’ve all had awkward situations like this. Someone in our vicinity violates our accepted social norms and expectations, and makes us uncomfortable, scared or generally uneasy. How we deal with these depends on so many factors; how we’ve been raised, how socially confident we are, if we’re aggressive or assertive or passive.

At times like this, I feel far too passive. A more assertive person would have pushed back a little, demanding to know why this gentleman was rummaging through his or her property. That said, the situation did end up playing out okay; perhaps assertiveness would have dragged it out further, or got more people involved.