The Business of Making People Happy

This morning, I met with my conversation partner, V. I should probably call it something different, since she pays me to talk with her in English for two hours, it’s not a language exchange, shifting from one language to the next. V. is an immigrant from Hungary and she simply wants to improve her English speaking skills, which are really not that bad, she merely lacks confidence.

Because of our mostly consistent meetings every week, I have learned a lot about Hungary and even about cultural differences in the United States from an outsider’s perspective. It’s funny. Like today, we talked again about customer service in the USA, how you walk into a place and everyone is so fucking cheerful, they smile and chit chat, ask you how your day is going, ask you little things, surface things, but the fact that they ask you any of this at all is somewhat astonishing to a person straight out of Eastern Europe, or Hungary, more specifically.

I know what V. is talking about. I’ve noticed it when I’ve been to other countries, especially the first time I left this continent and travelled to Kyrgystan to live there for a few months. The cashiers at the grocery store, the people behind the counter at the corner kiosk, the people hulking vegetables at little sidewalk stands, no one ever smiled at us or tried to make small talk. I can’t say the same for Spain, where I lived for almost ten months, but it was true for waiters in the service industry. They would flat out ignore you, which many of us Americans really liked, because at least you knew it didn’t matter if you lingered for five hours. No one would make you feel pressured to leave.

“No pressure,” V. mimics across the table with her hand extended, as though offering me the check at an American restaurant.

“I know! No pressure,” I respond, “But there really is all kinds of pressure. They want you to leave as soon as possible so they can seat the next people in line, turn that table over, make more money, more tips.”

I was trying to figure this out today, because it is a thing, wherever you go in the States, this pressure to be cheerful, to be kind, to laugh and chit chat, ask someone how they are doing, what they are doing. V. says that in Hungary there is no small talk. I tried to ask why that is, but it wasn’t until we hit on the fact that Hungary is part of the former Eastern Bloc of the USSR that we might have gotten close to an idea.

V. also mentioned that Hungarians, while they are part of the European Union, feel that they are subpar compared to other countries, compared to the “European Standard.” I asked her to explain.

“Hungarians don’t wait in line for anything. They don’t know how to queue. There are other things, too, like in hospitals, or for example, the place where I used to work,” she was a social worker in Hungary for a Work Source type program, “there was never any toilet paper because people would always steal it from the bathroom. They even stole the light bulbs at times. It was the same in the hospitals everywhere, never any toilet paper.”

It’s a funny anecdote, but the difference is in those little details. The craziness of Hungary right now is being noticed worldwide. Viktor Orban is becoming more overtly fascist every day, taking more and more pieces of Hungary’s democracy until there’s nothing left. The people are finally starting to wake up and protest with this most recent “slave law” requiring people to work hundreds of hours of overtime without compensation.

Protestors in Budapest, Taken from The New York Times. Laszlo Balogh

V. tells me about the roads, all the pot holes, the dangers of some of the roads, and even an activist group that filled the holes with colorful asphalt–it got nicknamed the polka dot road–to make a statement about the government’s neglect of basic public land, and also the misuse of public funds. The government came along and actually dug up the holes! And they didn’t fix the street! It’s absolutely insane.

Of course, it’s easy to criticize another country and sit back and say, “Oh, well, it’s not that bad here.” I mean, for now, I can say, at least we don’t have a complete government take over of all Broadcast Networks which violently bars smaller political parties from speaking out according to their views. We still have some semblance of free speech, at least for now.

I’m not trying to be a pessimist, but I do think that what Orban is doing in Hungary is exactly what Trump would like to do here. All this whining and crying over fake news and media slime seems to point towards taking full control of news sources in order to completely control the narrative about him and his political party. Seems to be the first order of business for a person so enamored with fascism.

Anyway, this all started with talking about customer service! Ha. V. also said that her husband read a book by an American who was so taken with the difference in Russian customer service, no one forced to smile and pretend they are happy, everyone allowed to feel exactly as they are. There is something to be said about that.

I think America’s obsession with excellent customer service simply stems from capitalism. It’s about having a good business model or plan, to make the customer happy first and foremost so they will come back for more. Because America is one of the biggest consumer cultures in the world, we all know there are ten to fifty other competitors that customer could go to if you don’t satisfy them first. It’s about the company’s bottom line, serving a perfect product with a smile every time, or you’ll lose them. That’s why there’s been this push towards “branding” and “personal branding.” Everyone has a business now, and needs to create a personal brand to easily identify themselves in a sea of so many other entrepreneurs, in order to stand out and provide a memorable, lasting product or service, keep them coming back.

Honestly, it all turns my stomach. I hate it all so much. It’s gross. I don’t give a shit about consumer culture, even while I participate in it almost daily. Business sucks and I fucking hate it. But it’s everywhere, all around us, it’s practically every person’s job that I know of to care about business. In America, it’s all about business.

I’ve had a lot of service jobs in my life. My first “real job” was as a dishwasher at a restaurant. I say “real” because it was my first time walking into a place and asking for a job. All the other jobs I’d had up to that point were kind of “freelance”: cleaning my grandma’s church, helping my mother clean other people’s houses, cleaning one of my mother’s client’s shop and house, and even working for a friend of my uncle for a while because he bailed me out of jail. At least all those service jobs never forced me to smile.

It wasn’t until I tried my hand at serving at that same “real job” that I felt like suddenly I was on display, performing, forced to be nice. I squirmed and turned red. In short, I hated it. Later, I worked for QFC behind a deli and bakery counter, then in produce for an eternity, then behind two other bakery counters to make coffee and serve pastries. I hated all of it, hated it with a passionate loathing. Once, at Macrina Bakery in SODO where I worked just before going to grad school, my boss said, “Arren, smile!” When I had my six month review, she told me I did not earn my raise because 1. I didn’t smile, and 2. I didn’t bring the coffee to the entitled boss just five feet away.

I do want to help humanity and make this place better, but I do not want to serve people. It drains all of the joy out of me. I hope to never have to do it again. Even though, from time to time, I do find myself seating people at the Sunlight on Sundays, it doesn’t feel exactly like serving. I’m simply filling in, wiping tables, giving people some water. I don’t need to attend to their every need.

America has an absurd obsession with customer service and I hate it. I could go on and on about the fucked up tipping culture (can anyone tell me why tipping suddenly went from 10% to over 20% since my childhood!?!?!) But I do have to admit, whenever I walk into a coffeeshop and I see a cheerful person behind the counter warmly asking how I’m doing, I do perk up a bit, slough off that curmudgeonly frown and respond, “Doing fine! How are you?! I’d love a coffee, thanks.”

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