Friday, December 13, 2013

Iowa Stubborn, Midwest Polite

We are all influenced immeasurably by the cultural signals with which we grow up.  Our behaviors, preferences, styles, and expectations of other people are all learned at young ages and are based on observing others.  "Of course!" One will answer to this.  "We know we learn our language and habits by watching people in the places we grow up.  Get to the point!"  Wow, One is testy today.

Many people (or I'm guessing many people based on my own personal experience, nothing wrong with that, right?) might never truly see just how much their cultural comfort zone controls their knee-jerk reactions to social situations.  How can we ever see what kind of habits we have if we don't ever see other habits.  I knew then and know now that the Midwestern (Iowan) way of doing things isn't the only way in the world.  I knew in some abstract sense that other countries were able to function (somehow) with cultural and social norms completely foreign to my own.

Fast forward to today.  I have been in Dublin for five months and have been in almost(?) every kind of interpersonal situation the regular big-city person might find.  I have been on busy streets, I have been hanging out with friends, I have ordered food and drinks at restaurants, I have navigated through rush-hour traffic on my bicycle, and many other day-to-day situations.  In most of these, I have been able to navigate through the interactions successfully by falling back on my instinctual Midwest reactions of not-making-a-fuss and not-causing-another-person-inconvenience.  Truth be told, Dublin's culture, much as some might deny it, is quite close to that of America- more so than Great Britain and especially more so than continental Europe.  Dublin's people are generally welcoming, smiling, patient, friendly, and helpful- but American expectations of over-courtesy sometimes fall short when getting service at a business or bank.

In that social situation, my Iowa friendliness instinct has let me down.  Many times when in a bank or shop, I have been flummoxed by a shopkeeper or bank teller who conducted business just as he or she had been trained, by customer service managers and by their own cultural observations growing up.  The following observations are not to be taken as absolutes, there are exceptions to every example.  They are also not meant to be criticisms or slams, but curious first-hand observations I have made from my own five-month Dublin experience.  I can't speak for all of America nor can I speak for all of Ireland, and things may be different elsewhere.

In America Iowa, businesses compete for customer dollars and do so by working hard to give the customer not just a quality product, but a happy and rewarding experience.  Customers at almost any kind of business are greeted with a smile and phrases like, "How may I help you?  Can I help you find anything?  Did you find everything you needed today?  Is there anything else we can do for you today?  Thank you!"  Children in stores, banks, and fast food restaurants see these phrases and smiles and learn this important lesson- that is what people in stores and shops do.  When these kids grow up, their managers and trainers (usually) don't have to explain that these cheerful (even if shallow, impersonal, and meaningless!) greetings are expected by customers and are to be conducted dutifully.  American customers become so accustomed to these friendly greetings that they lodge complaints to anyone who will listen when someone in a store is "rude" by serving them with less-than-worship level friendliness.  Speaking of complaints, American companies (who are still competing for those customer dollars) have large customer service departments with the authority to grant all manner of "bribes" to dissatisfied customers in order to ensure repeat business.  Again, people have learned to expect this, so they will make those calls when they feel they are needed, and usually end up with a gift card/refund/replacement/discount on service when they do complain.

In Ireland Dublin, businesses still compete for consumer money, but seem to do so in price alone.  Customers at stores and banks are greeted not with, "How can I help you today?" But with the terse and curious, "Are you alright there?"  Which locals manage to squeeze into the three syllable, "Y'ahh right d'ere?" Or just, "Y'ahh right?" This comes as a bit of a shock when I am used to the full, smiling attention of a patient salesperson.  These shopkeepers are only doing what is normal for them and for the city culture, so it is I who must adjust.  Many shop employees won't give customers a glance until approached.  This might be more refreshing than over-attentive American retail employees following customers around the store offering help again and again.  Not bad, of course, just different than expected.  In general, if one needs something here, one has to be bold and ask for it- it might not be offered by a slow, calm, patient, smiling face.  When service does fall through, it can be difficult to recoup losses, and many businesses don't feel the need to placate angry or let-down customers with free goodies.  Once can expect a sincere apology from a business for bad service, but requests for make-up services might be met with blank stares.  In Iowa, I made a call to the service department of a company from whom I had ordered some equipment for school when they bumbled our order.  By telling them I was a school teacher with a small budget and a lot of let-down kids on my hands, I got half of the order for free.  When setting up our internet and phone line here, we set up an installation and waited four weeks to hear anything back before finally calling.  Said they, "Oh, I see your internet line was supposed to be set up four weeks ago, but it looks like it wasn't.  I'll resubmit the request, you should have it in four more weeks."  End of discussion.

Enter me, not shy of speaking to strangers, but averse to causing someone inconvenience, even a retail clerk or bank teller whose help I need and whose job it is to assist me.  Several times here I have been asking a question and had the question interrupted by an employee with an answer to a question that I wasn't asking.  Upon answering the question he or she thought I was asking, the employee nonverbally dismissed me by turning eyes to the next customer or walking away.  Again I must stress that I am not insulted by these kinds of behaviors because here they are normal and accepted.  What I should do in those situations, of course, is stop the employee and ask my question again for clarification.  I don't think the employees would be offended, it's just how they do business.  I see other customers do it all the time.  They don't take the nonverbal dismissal until they are good and ready for it.  My Midwestern upbringing gets in my way, and I usually yield, like a sucker.  In Iowa, I would feel guilty if I had to interrupt an employee who had finished with me with another question, and so I have left shops and banks with no answers to my questions simply because I wasn't bold enough to assert myself.

The biggest catch for me, I think, is the lack of the important question, "Is there anything else I can do for you?"  I never realized how often I took people up on that offer.  "Oh yeah, are you open on Sundays?  Do you take checks?  Can I use your bathroom?  When do you get in the Spring line of my favorite Faux Louis Vuitton chain wallets?"  When shopkeepers and tellers here feel business is complete, there isn't (usually) that extra chance for more service, it's on to the next customer.  Back to the social cues.  Children here see how bank tellers and shopkeepers conduct themselves here at a young age.  They learn to act and expect the same as adults.  These social habits get mixed into the cultural salad just like everything else.  It's interesting.

Maybe this isn't an Ireland thing, but a Dublin thing.  Maybe it's just a big city thing.  Maybe I have just had all-out rotten luck with so many of my services.  I must say again this does not represent all of my business dealings in Ireland, nor does it represent the overall character of the kind, caring people here.  I rather enjoy these small differences.  These subtle bits of culture are what make international travel (and living) so satisfying.

All we can do as expats is adjust our expectations and reflect on how much we learn and are enriched by living and working with different people with (slightly) different habits.  Until we need shoes in a certain size from the stockroom...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a comment, we'd love to hear what you think! Comments are word verified to prevent SPAM.