Saturday, April 26, 2008

KINDLY Give me my Cigarettes Now

CARPE DIEM has two interesting posts on Russia. The first has to do with smoking and obesity. Basically, the author sits around in Moscow looking in vain for a fat man. And also for a non-smoker. And then he wonders whether smoking has something to do with Russian thinness. Indeed. It's funny how obvious things like this sometimes take a really long time to occur to you. But I can remember going to Korea for the first time and being equally shocked by how thin everyone was - and that's saying a lot, really, since I was just off the plane from Japan! One of my Japanese friends and I - when he came to visit - spent a long time puzzling over why, while people are generally thin in Japan, you do occasionally see real lardasses, but there simply aren't any fat people at all in Korea. But IT'S THE SMOKING, STUPID! OF COURSE! In retrospect it seems so obvious. Because while we were busy talking about that, we also noticed that there was a lot more smoking going on than in Japan (which also says a lot). (And yes, there is statistical evidence to back up my claim that Koreans smoke a lot more than Japanese. The link goes to a WHO site that claims a smoking rate of 67% for Korea and 51% for Japan.)

Now here's a comparison between Russia and Spain. The second one has to do with customer service in Russia, which the author claims has not fully recovered from the Soviet era. He starts with an annecdote about the opening of the first McDonald's in 1990 in what was then still the Soviet Union. The elaborate training program focused on customer service, a novel concept in a commuist nation. One teenager in training is supposed to have asked, confused, why he should be nice to the customers since he was the one with the hamburgers!

The Soviet Union has been gone for 17 years now. I was in Barcelona in 1998, 23 years after Franco died - which, if you figure the 2 year transition period, put it at roughly the same timespan. What immediately shocked me was how terrible customer service in general was. I went abroad swearing not to be one of those annoying Americans who constantly complains about how much better things are supposed to be at home - but I just couldn't help it. There's indifference, and then there's downright rude, and these people were the latter. I resolved to keep a stiff upper lip about it, but one of my German friends, when we were out of earshot of any Spaniards, let me off the hook by bringing up the subject himself. He'd been there for two years already and still hadn't gotten used to it - and this is a German we're talking about! He explained to me that it had to do with the Franco period - that in a dictatorship the shoe is totally on the other foot, and since the economy is controlled it's the suppliers who have the upper hand. You get in the habit of bribing shopkeepers for favors, and so the mentality sets in that the shopkeeper is the one keeping the customer afloat, rather than the other way around. At the time I just sort of nodded but couldn't really see the point. Surely even in a dictatorship profits are important, right? But now I read this about Russia and I wonder - because that was exactly the attitude in Barcelona when I was there. When I bought something from someone, it was as if the shopkeeper had done me a favor. Strange.

Which all makes me wonder ... when was Indiana ever a dictatorship? Because damned if that's not exactly the impression I get here a lot of times too. I can remember one time me and all 32 years I'd been on this planet at the time walked into Marsh (a grocery store) wanting to buy beer. The cunt behind the register apparently gets her kicks carding people and wanted to see two forms of ID - which is ridiculous. I get that I look young for my age, but I'm nowhere near looking under 21! At best, she needs to do a cursory check to fulfill her legal obligations, but TWO forms of ID??? So I asked her if she was serious, and she said she was and acted irritated. I held up my license, which is behind a plastic screen in my wallet, and then turned it over to show her my student ID. She insisted that I pull each out and hand them to her. "Are you enjoying this?" I asked. She said "Sir, do you want the alcohol or not?" To which I responded "Do you want my money or not?" Honestly, there are plenty of stores in town that sell beer! But it's constant here. Customer service just blows. I miss the South.


At 10:24 AM, Blogger Jon said...

I wandered down to that Big Red on 3rd in front of Marsh on the east side once a few summers ago (before a seemingly friendlier wave of people started working there) with only my driver's license and some cash I'd grabbed off my table. The guy there asked for two forms of ID. I said I only had my license, but was obviously over 21, and he said he had to see two anyway. So I said "well, I don't have a second, so I guess I'll go somewhere else" and started out. Suddenly he's ringing it up and telling me to hold on, and he didn't even check the FIRST ID. He didn't give a crap if I was actually over 21... I'm pretty sure he was doing it for the thrill of being in control, and when it came down to the practical fact that I simply couldn't physically provide a second, and he wasn't in control at all, then suddenly it was just a question of sale or no sale. I haven't been thrilled with the customer service here either. I mean, being a college town and all, you obviously run across a lot of laid-back service where people are just friendly anyway, but there definitely seems to be less of a feeling of success-driven obligation to be friendly to paying customers. It could be that they've just gotten burnt out on serving college students (even the college students in those positions themselves).


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