Reverse Culture Shock 101: CUSTOMER SERVICE

Well if this isn’t the mother of all shocking cultural phenomena, I’ll eat my goddamn hat. And I’m bald, so I don’t relish the idea.

After living in Japan for awhile, I started to miss the ostentatious humanity of American service. I began to reminisce:

“You’d go into a sandwich shop back home, say ‘How are you today?’ to the clerk, and they’d reply with a personally tailored answer. ‘I’m AWESOME today.'” A good waitress would tell you an hilarious anecdote, and your local banker would commiserate when you complained about fees. Of course, this meant that when a server was having a bad day, so were you. “How you doing today?” you would say to a cab driver. “To be honest, I’m having a shitty day.” And then, like magic, his problem would become your problem.

Japan, by comparison, operates under the questionable philosophy that “the customer is God.” Questionable because, in reality, most places in Japan are wholly under-qualified and unwilling to meet those lofty standards (in detail). Also because customers, most of the time, are not God.

Still, as long as you stick to the rulebook and don’t startle anyone with outlandish requests like “Please don’t splash mayonnaise all over everything the way you always do,” you’ll be in store for some nearly royal treatment. They greet you boisterously when you enter. They apologize for everything, including when they serve you. “I am being rude,” they say as they place the correct thing you ordered in front of you with two hands, the act sandwiched between bows of consciously calculated depth. In the rare event that they make a mistake, like, say, mixing up your order or dropping a napkin, you will either receive a profuse apology of likewise consciously calculated pitch and timbre, or you will feel a thick cloud of tension form directly over your table as the server whimpers, “I have been rude,” as though actually bracing for the wrath of God. “Don’t worry about it,” you say. “It’s just pancakes.” And you almost start to feel like God.

Nevertheless, I eventually reached a point of stalemate, where it seemed that both styles of service had their charms. On the one hand, it’s fun to have unscripted interactions with real-life human beings with feelings, not to mention great practice for life on Planet Earth, where you will frequently be forced into such interactions (though less and less, now). American service holds with it the faint twinkle of a promise that America itself also holds, which is that you may at least pursue your own route to happiness. You might even get a date or a new best friend out of it. But you make your own damn bed. On the other hand, while I don’t believe the customer is God, I do believe the customer is a customer, and that whether this status is permanent or transient depends in part on the server. I also believe that regardless of real-world practices, basic economic theory–in any country–holds, as a fundamental datum, that the customer IS NOT YOUR FUCKING COUNSELOR.

Now having said that, I’m fine with the chatty cab driver who gripes about his day. I’m fine with the commiserating banker. I’m happy to talk to these people or at least give them a chance, but there has to be some role-defining line between the customer and server, if only to remind everybody that there is in fact a reason they showed up at this specific location. Surely I’m not the only one who, time and again, has felt the awkward sting of transition from Friendly Banter Mode to “Give Me My Shit” Mode at the local Starbucks or Baskin-Robbins.

Server: “Hi, how are you?”

Customer: “Doing great, thanks. And you?”

Server: “I’m awesome.”

RIGHT HERE. This is the exact spot where, every time, there is an instant of unclarity. Do you just spew out your order after that personal exchange? But doing that would effectively nullify the personal nature of the exchange. It says to the server, “Yeah, I’m just interested in my order, not in you.” But the sad reality is, you didn’t go to Starbucks to find out if “Austin” has been having an okay day. Everybody knows this, but to acknowledge it is to brand oneself “callous”, or “snobbish”, or “a douche”. So we maintain the illusion of personal interaction. When it comes time to take care of business, then, we falter.

“Um,” we begin, necessarily. You see, it just now occurred to us that we could maybe place an order, as long as we’re getting to know each other on an intimate level in what appears, upon close inspection, to be a coffee shop. “Um, could I get a Tall Latté, man?

We ask, with the implicit agreement that despite the fact that this is a place constructed for the sole purpose of making and selling lattés, we might not be able to get one, if it’s not okay with the server. Whether we realize it or not, these exchanges are just as calculated as the frantic kowtowing of any Japanese Gusto waitress. The difference is that we are customers.

Here’s why I think that might be important, and why we as Americans might have something to brag about after all.

In today’s The Moth Podcast, seasoned war reporter Phil Caputo concluded with this observation: “Maybe it’s a requirement that all of us have to share in each other’s sufferings, or risk losing our humanity.”

Maybe there’s no maybe about it. If there’s something positive to say about the American way, it’s that it constantly reminds you that every single person you know, every single person you deal with, is a person. And the rate at which we may forget that if not reminded, and the deeds of which we may be capable as a result, are a far more shocking reality of all cultures.

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