Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Caribbean Lesson in Courtesy

Agostino Brunias, Free West Indian Dominicans

So. I have a job now. I'd prefer to leave its description and duties unspecified here. It's enough to say it's in customer service (which I am resigned to never escaping), and it isn't particularly glamorous or lucrative. But it is allowing me to make rent, so for the time being I'll be keeping to myself any grievances I may have.

The setting and gist of the gig is a space where visitors browse about, and if they would like to procure any of the merchandise on display, they speak to me (or my cohorts). A procedural remnant from my days at the Caribbean coffeehouse and the hip grocery store chain (heck, and probably from my teenage years jollily upselling at the mallcore superstore) is my tendency to greet people when they come within a certain distance of my person. Usually I dispense with the "hello how can I help you" crap. Rather: Hey. Hi. How's it going. What's up. Wassup. Sup. Wass. Namaste. Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya. & cetera. Actually, what I most often say is "good morning" or "good afternoon," but we'll get into that in a moment.

Sometimes my greetings' recipients will say hello back. And every once in a while we'll indulge in some light chitchat that doesn't leave a bad taste in my mouth.

But I think the most frequent answer I get when I say "hello" is "just looking." Or: "No thanks."

I'm used to hearing this. I've heard it ever since I was accosting bewildered-looking parents surveying the Nightmare Before Christmas swag display at the mallcore superstore in search of holiday gifts for their teenaged progeny. But until recently I haven't found it as disrespectful and offensive as I do now.

I am almost certain this shift was effectuated by my eight-month residence in the US Virgin Islands. The native sons and daughters of St Thomas are easygoing in many respects, but they exhibit a perhaps startling punctiliousness where salutatory etiquette is concerned.

The first time I really appreciated this was one morning during my first or second month at the café, when I had to put a caller on hold to wrap up a long, complicated to-go order from the customer standing across from me at the counter. When I got back on the phone I must have said something like "thanks, sorry about that."

"Good morning." The speaker was male, probably an older man, and his creole phonetics marked him a native-born St Thomian.

"What can I do for you?"

"Good morning."

"Hi. What can I—"

"Good morning."

"Good morning. What can I do for you?"

He commenced with his order.

If you glance at any Virgin Islands tourism guide, the authors will tell you that there are three acceptable ways of greeting somebody who isn't a friend or family member: good morning, good afternoon, and good night. (Obviously which one you use depends on the time of day.) The same guidebook will elsewhere inform you that the island locals are generally very friendly and more than happy to answer questions or give directions, but the authors will recur to the proper greetings and strongly advise their use. If you just walk up to a West Indian on the street and say "hey can you tell me how to get to the beach/bus stop/strip club"—without opening with "good morning/afternoon/night"—you will come off to him/her as pompous and not a little impolite. And, again, it goes both ways: if you answer a St Thomian's "good afternoon" with "hey" or "hi," or anything but "good afternoon," you might as well be replying to them with a snort.

I'm certainly no authority on Caribbean culture or sociology, but I feel this insistence on courtesy and ritual, however stuffy or sedulous it might first appear, bespeaks something beautiful and maybe increasingly necessary. It evinces an unspoken agreement between strangers in this society. Namely: before you and I conduct our business, before you say what you want from me or I ask something of you, let's take a short moment for a dignified acknowledgement of one another's humanity.

After returning to the mainland, and still to this day, the first words out of my mouth when I'm approaching someone behind a store counter are almost always goo morning, good afternoon, or good evening. (It took a couple of weeks to get out of the habit of saying "good night;" I got some funny looks from a few 7-Eleven clerks.) And I do see that it is appreciated. I've worked enough cash registers to know how pleasant it is to not be regarded as an automaton.

"Good afternoon," I'll say.

"No thanks," they'll say.

This is not uncommon at all. Why is it not more widely perceived as an egregious discourtesy?

It would be one thing if the clerk/associate/salesperson/whatever was leading with "can I get you something." In that case "no thanks" would be perfectly appropriate. But to answer a greeting with a deferral is is pure semantic disrespect. The exchange can be boiled down to:

"Hello."

"Fuck off."

I suspect in these instances the consumer is not deliberately acting rudely, because the consumer doesn't actually hear what is being said. The sounds issuing from the worker's mouth are not words to be parsed and considered as words having meanings: they are something more like the startup.wav to a commercial transaction. You might remember, during our palaver about urbanism, Karl Marx, and Marshall McLuhan, we touched on the Marxian concept of alienation: the tendency of a capitalistic social organization to estrange people from their work, from themselves, and from each other. When the consumer approaches a counter and addresses (or is addressed by) a service worker, he is less disposed to perceive the object standing at the cash register as a person than a function. The worker's greeting is not to be mistaken for the prelude to any kind of interpersonal exchange between living human beings; it is an OK/Cancel window, and it is because we as consumers are trained to treat it as such.

Hence my appreciation for the Virgin Islanders' insistence on polite salutations. "Good morning/afternoon/night, nothing else, and nothing before" is a socially enforced ritual, certainly, and it can be performed as perfunctorily as the tired sales clerk's "how may I help you"—but it is at the final an effective pushback against what is essentially wanton incivility promoted and tolerated for the sake of efficiency.

10 comments:

  1. I recently worked for a charity standing at a booth in busy shopping malls. I was instructed to approach people with a brief greeting and a question such as "Would you like to help poor kids today?" or "Could you spare some change for kids in need?" It was an education in human nature. In a single day and within minutes of each other you could get anything from incredible compassionate and friendly motorbike-gang looking muscleheads to caustic and appallingly hateful adorable old women and everything in between. From "Oh my God, please tell me how can I help" to "I'm not going to give any of my money away just because some foreign tramp couldn't keep her legs closed". From "Thank you very much for doing this, you're doing God's work" to "fuck you".

    The one thing that always got me and shouldn't, though, was people answering to my questions with a curt "no". I knew deep inside that they did not even listen to the question and the "no" was just an automated swatter they swung at the annoying mosquito of my undesired approach, but man... to hear someone replying just "no" to a plea to help some of the most unfortunate kids in the world, I couldn't help to be filled with indignation and contempt. I mean, of course no one is obligated to donate, but not displaying at least some humanity while declining seemed just atrocious.

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    1. Ouch. I'm sorry you were put in that position. Canvassing is an odious event for everyone involved. (Except for the eventual recipients of the charity, of course, and the foundation that enjoys a slice of the proceeds.)

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  2. Working as a waiter, I keep these greetings locked in, like it's a part of my verbal code. In the restaurant business at least, you can't be expected to converse with a customer without some basic pleasantries. So for me it begins to feel tedious, and almost too phony/perfunctory to really serve any function. The tossed-off "Hello, how are you doing?"-"Not bad, yourself?" exchange is bad enough, but it does end up even worse when it's "Hello, how are you doing?"-"Water with lemon please."

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    1. I know exactly what you mean. But that's why I never bother asking a subject how they're doing, unless they either look like they'd respond positively to the question or it's a slow day and I'm bored. It IS usually phony and perfunctory, and I think the subjects and I would prefer not to waste our time.

      One of my problems with the customer service ritual is that I never know how to reply when a subject asks ME how I'm doing. "Still alive," is my default answer. It has gotten me into trouble with my superiors. ("Why can't you just say fine?" "BECAUSE THAT WOULD BE DISHONEST.")

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  3. I always found chit-chat with strangers difficult, especially salespeople. I guess I sometimes blurt out the wrong canned response, which can be a bit insulting, but it evens out when you realize the other persone doesn't actually care if you're having a good morning or not. On the flipside, when they ask you how you are doing, they sometimes eye the queue behind you, as in "yeah, yeah, make it quick, boyo". Other times, when you give your answer, their eyes glaze over, that's always a nice touch, lol.

    In all fairness, I think a salesperson's mood and niceness is a function of how long they've been on shift, but I haven't tested it scientifically. And I think "just looking" is a very important part of the customer service dance: one party gets to peek at the merchandise without someone looking over their shoulder, while the other doesn't waste his time on someone that doesn't want to buy anything.

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    1. Chitchat is unnecessary. That's why the typical English greeting "how are you" doesn't make any fucking sense. You don't lead off with an open-ended question that strangers probably won't wish to answer honestly. It's cumbersome and meaningless.

      The Virgin Islands greeting is a ritual of respect proffered and reciprocated. No bullshitting need follow once the proper salutations have been made.

      I think it's totally acceptable to say "just looking" if you're answering the question "what can I do for you?". It's probably even appropriate for "how are you?". It's only rude as a response to a declarative salutation.

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    2. Yes, the open-endedness is something I noticed when being greeted in English. In French, it's usually something like "Vous allez bien?" which means "Are you well?". It's a bit more straightforward, since it's a yes/no question and almost nobody ever replies no anyway.

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  4. Oh, this is so beautiful and lyrical and smart.

    I've often thought it's funny that in today's American English "Good morning," "Good afternoon," and Good evening" are greetings, but "Good night" is a goodbye. I've seen the first three used as exit lines in old books and movies, but not in the wild today.

    "Before you and I conduct our business, before you say what you want from me or I ask something of you, let's take a short moment for a dignified acknowledgement of one another's humanity." -- Yes. Yes. We should do that.

    A few years ago I was waiting at the information desk at Barnes & Noble while an employee looked something up for me. While I was standing there, three other customers walked up and asked him things. The exchanges began like this:
    Employee: "Hello."
    Customer: "Cookbooks?"
    or
    Employee: "Hi, can I help you?"
    Customer: "Mysteries?"
    or
    Employee: "Hi."
    Customer: "Biography?"
    I must have said something or looked surprised, because he turned back to me and said, "Yeah, I don't hear 'hello' much in this job."


    As for street canvassers greeting people with openers like "Would you like to help poor kids today?" -- IT'S A TRAP. I hate that. I don't hate you, O commenter unknown to me, but I really hate those lines they made you say in that job. Those "greetings" have nothing to do with acknowledging each other's humanity. They're manipulative.

    A lot of this is tangled up with my loathing of the pyramid scheme fundraising tactics of companies like Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. (Read that again-- GRASSROOTS CAMPAIGNS, INC. I mean. Come on.) I don't donate to their canvassers as a matter of principle, because I don't want to support this gross fundraising model, and because I don't want the majority of my paltry contribution to go to the middleman.

    But anyway, I resent the implication that if I don't stop to talk to this particular exploited clipboard-wielder, it's because I don't want to help poor kids, or I don't have a minute for reproductive rights, or whatever.

    I do think there is a lot to be said for the intrusion of the larger world into spaces like malls where we're otherwise just going around shopping in our little bubbles-- to counter, as Patrick puts it above, "the tendency of a capitalistic social organization to estrange people from their work, from themselves, and from each other." When your mind is stuck on the "Why is it so hard to find pants in my size" channel, it's good to be jolted out of it somehow. But not that way. Please, not that way.

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