Can I, y'know, help you?

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.


Anonymous said…
I agree with you in part,

I know in Israel its pretty much the same deal. They work almost exclusively for tips in hospitality. Sad but true.

I suppose if you try to aim for the fine line between nonchalent and a synchophant- being genial, what you have to factor in is sometimes its reciprocal and sometimes you might exude an air of "genial condascension". Rather than judge a person who is serving you by the impression they leave it is usually better to try and make conversation regardless and be what the americans call "chipper". In doing so you make the experience more pleasurable for everyone.

You just don't want to make them feel the thick air of subordination is like their birthright. Particularly in the "land of the free"
Anonymous said…
Not so convinced its all to do with how much they are paid but rather ways of behaving which are entrenched inthe American culture and, therefore, rudeness, etc. have become the accepted norm. Fishy (glad to see the Blog back).
boy_fromOz said…
I would have thought reliance on tips would give an incentive for better service. And it doesn't click with America's image as the entrepreneurial nation. I guess that just applies to the segment of the population which has the eduation and skills to be paid properly.
Anonymous said…
I had a different experience entirely, for what it's worth. It really was all 'your welcome' and 'have a nice day' in New York. I had some great laughs with diner owners in LA who doubted I could handle the chilli peppers in my burittos. Even the airport security was friendly enough.
Anonymous said…
My experience also seems entirely different to yours. The diners I went to were staffed by people no less enthusiastic than your diner-level eatery in Australia.

I think some people have expectations about countries which in turn places a kind of thought bias behind how you perceive every action.

Foreigners engaging in cultural superiority over Americans is not a new phenomenon.
Anonymous said…
The Yanks approach to interpersonal relation that you experienced Ari probably explains why only 30% vote and those that did elected that idiot Bush twice. I banned Yanks from my B&B nearly 4 years ago.

Regards, Adrian Jackson of Middle Park, Victoria, Australia.
Anonymous said…
I don't think you truly understand why you got poor service at these places. Each and every one of those places, if you were to talk to your average American, they would agree that you can't expect good service involving those places at all. A 50's diner sometimes encourages bad service from waiters for a more "authentic" feel. Saying "yeah?" when you're ready to order is what some of them do. It's not being rude for the sake of being rude, it's more to stereotype themselves. The diner in a trailer with bad service is kind of a cultural icon of ours. With Greyhound and Walgreens though, the poor service comes from the way the businesses are run. They both hold their employees in very low regard and take their customers for granted.

-Nathan in Nebraska

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