Normally I like nonchalance in people who are delivering services to me. I don't want my waiter to be a sycophant, my station master to stress out or my airline steward to twist an ankle in my service. Still, quite often in this country, service is beyond nonchalant - it's just plain rude in its cantgiveafuck-ness.
I had a nigling feeling that something was not quite right on my first meal in Los Angeles after landing. After being shown to our seat at a 1950s-themed diner, our waiter roused himself from his comfy booth and approached us. With earphone still wedged in his left ear, he flung some menus in my direction, and returned a few minutes later only to ask "Yeah?", which we soon learnt was an invitation for us to recite our order.
This was far from an isolated experience. On many occasions, you can't help but get the feeling that your mere presence as a customer is intruding upon the leisure time of the person you are trying to deal with. From Greyhound, to Walgreen (a Walmart spin-off) to many a suburban Chinese restaurant, apathy is the norm.
As a few people have pointed out along the way after experiencing similar mediocrity, never is the adage that you get what you pay for more true. Though it has just been increased, the minimum wage is low by European and Australian standards, and there are plenty of people who are working at this wage, plus tips, of course. When someone is being paid such a meagre amount, its little wonder that they struggle to summon the energy to care. The fact that businesses can survive with such poor service suggests that most customers are willing to tolerate it if it means that prices stay low. As always, it's a trade-off: good service requires paying your staff decently, which requires increasing the cost to the consumer. It is a cost few consumers are willing to pay.
There are a few exceptions of course to this "low cost, low expectation" model of service delivery. Starbucks, who are as ubiquitous as the stereotype suggests, charge a little more than most for their products, but their staff are remarkable in their friendliness and courtesy. In a country in which these values appear in short supply, it is most welcome.