Shop assistants who should be lighthouse keepers



IMG_5927 (1)

It’s 10am on a Sunday morning and the shops are about to open in Osaka. I stand outside a department store to get a cake from the cake counter for my son’s birthday party that will start in two hours. I don’t usually leave important things like birthday cakes to the last minute, but this time I had no choice. See, the kids and I went to buy the cake the day before but when the shop assistant heard that the cake was not going to be eaten on the same day she politely, with an apologetic smile on her face, refused to sell us the cake. It turns out Japanese people are obsessed with fresh food, and I guess the shop assistant thought that me serving a cake that was made the day before at a kids’ birthday party was comparable to me serving a pint of lager that was pulled the day before at an adults’ party. Yet, she remained polite and was very apologetic for the fact that we would have to return the following day to buy our cake.

My life in Finland, England and Japan and my visits to several other countries have taught me that politeness is (a) a relative term and (b) doesn’t come as a given everywhere. For instance (see some examples below), I think that a Finnish cake counter assistant might have delivered the above Japanese cake counter assistant’s message in a slightly different manner. The word patronising would probably best describe my assumption of their manner.

To be fair, customer service in some small independently owned shops in Finland is often pretty amazing – the staff is polite, they know their stuff and are eager to help you to find just the right skis, biscuit cutter or chainsaw for you. But overall, I think customer service in Finland can be seen as somewhat dull and impolite. Interestingly (and importantly), I didn’t always think that it was dull and impolite.  Me having lived in England/Japan for the past 16 years means that I’ve come to expect (a) eye contact, (b) a friendly facial expression and (c) abundance of polite phrases such as ‘Thank you’ from the shop assistant. These are things that are not socially compulsory in Finnish customer service contexts in the same way they are in places like England and Japan.

What about England then? Well, all of us know that the British are perceived as polite in customer service (and elsewhere), and my view is that yeah, they are pretty friendly and polite in most places, but even though they do make you feel welcome with their pleases and thank-yous and their Have a nice days and You alright, loves I feel that many of them would not hesitate to sell you a birthday cake a couple of days out of date (providing that they had even noticed that the cake was past its consume by date). Maybe this is because shop assistants in England are commonly students who, instead of focusing on the task at hand, are probably in their minds re-playing the shenanigans from the night before – them skinny dipping on the Brighton seafront, snogging the bearded barman (or barwoman) or waking up in the pub toilets at 9am. The polite phrases and their friendly questions and comments on the weather, your purchases and your plans for the night are just part of their linguistic autopilot – a form of chitchat that comes naturally to most Brits. But even if the chitchat is not necessarily completely genuine, I think it’s kind of nice.

It’s not just bakery staff that are polite in Japan. All customer service staff in Japan are. I assume the reason for this is that the shop assistant is seen to slot into a lower level in the social hierarchy than the customer. Hence, the shop assistant must behave as if the customer is their superior.

When you walk into a shop and an unnaturally high pitch shop assistant’s (male or female) voice greets you with Irrashaimase! (‘Welcome!’). The pitch seems to correlate with the level of politeness – the higher the pitch, the more polite and welcoming they are perceived to be. Not only is the pitch high, they usually also smile while they say it.  It baffled me for a while to think how members of staff at shop entrances manage to keep the smile on their face pretty much throughout their 8-hour shift. I mean, you try fake-smiling for 30 minutes and see how you all of a sudden show an uncanny resemblance to Gordon Brown (if you don’t know who Gordon Brown is, you haven’t missed much. All you need to know is that it’s not a good look). But then I saw a gadget – a bit like Thigh Master for your face – which can be used to give your facial muscles a workout to survive the demands of the Japanese customer-service industry.





I want to emphasise that when you make these kinds of comparisons between different cultures, it is important to remember that there are different norms for politeness in different countries. A native to a particular country might not perceive a certain behaviour impolite while a foreigner (or expat), who is not used to those norms, finds themselves tutting. Importantly, what really counts is the natives’ perception of a person’s behaviour.

A couple of good examples of cross-cultural differences in politeness in customer service come from our recent visit to Hong Kong (note, these were observed in small local restaurants/shops. In the 5-star hotels and restaurants the service was fantastic).


The waiter, Hong Kong

I requested water that we had already ordered ten minutes earlier but that had not been brought to our table with the food and other drinks we ordered.

Me: Excuse me, could we have 4 glasses of water please.

Waiter (with a firm voice): Wait!


The restaurant cashier, Hong Kong

When paying our bill at a restaurant exit my husband hands money to the cashier. My husband turns his head to me to say something at which point the cashier hands my husband his change. My husband doesn’t respond instantly because he is looking at me. So the cashier eyeballs my husband with disbelief, extends the change closer to my husband and with an angry expression on her face says: Yes?!


The shop assistant, Hong Kong

I bought some bottled water in 7-Eleven. With a straight, tired of life expression on her face the cashier goes: Bag?


Hong Kong’s customer service representatives’ single word communication with customers seemed rather caveman-like to me, but I knew that such expressions are a normal way to communicate in Hong Kong and thus I tried not to be offended.

Finland is my native country, which means that I have a relatively good understanding as to when a Finnish person is being rude or just ‘Finnish’. As I mentioned above, I find Finnish customer service in general a little impolite (due to lack of chitchat or thank-yous) but the lack of these is not really the end of the world – it is just the way Finnish customer service works. However, I’ve experienced some pretty out of order behaviour in Finland recently.


The barmaid, Finland

I was in Finland for a school reunion. A group of us old college mates ended up in a local pub in Hamina. I went to the bar to buy a drink (note: in Finland everyone buys their own drinks, buying rounds is pretty much unheard of!) and thought that I’d buy two small (30 gram) bags of crisps for the group to share.

Barmaid: €14

Me: Sorry, how much are the bags of crisps?

Barmaid: €3.50 per bag

Me: Blimey these are expensive. In a pub in England a bag of crisps would cost maybe £1.

Barmaid: Yeah? Well, that’s why the Brits are all so fat.

Just in case you are wondering, she didn’t say it as a joke. Her face looked like what some Finns might call (by using some slightly less offensive terminology) a ‘female elephant’s private parts’. The next time I visit the pub maybe I will take a complimentary Japanese face muscle trainer with me in attempt to wipe that elephant related expression off her face.


The shop assistant, Finland

One time I was at Helsinki airport. I was in a duty free shop buying some Finnish delicacies (liquorice vodka, rye bread, chocolates) to take back home with me. My shopping ended up filling half of the basket. When I got to the till there was nowhere to put the basket and the conveyer belt was one of those short, 70cm, ones. There was no queue so I didn’t really know what to do with my shopping, and so placed the basket on the conveyer belt and thought that the cashier would take the basket (as they do in Japan) and place the items in the packing area when they’ve rang them through the till. But no, this cashier must have been related to the barmaid in Hamina. She looks at me and says with a patronising voice:

Can you take that basket of yours down. The conveyer belt will collapse underneath the weight of it.

Pretty weak conveyer belts they’ve got at Helsinki Airport Duty Free, given that I only had one bottle of Liquorice Vodka and some other items in my basket. What if the customer had been a hard-core liquorice vodka fan buying several bottles and had placed those bottles on the conveyer belt, with or without the basket?


The cashier, Finland

I was paying for a chocolate bar or something at a kiosk. I paid with a €5 note, but the cashier gave me €8 change.

Me: Sorry, you gave me too much change. I gave you a fiver.

Annoyed cashier: Well, if you don’t want it, give it back then.


Counter to Japan where the customer is seen as ‘superior’, for some reason, the above Finnish shop assistants seem to see themselves as superior and the customer as some kind of a brain dead camel. Maybe I haven’t lived/travelled in enough countries to be aware that even ruder customer service representatives exist somewhere outside of Finland (if you have, please educate me!), but, based on the above examples, I feel that in Finland there are surprisingly large number of people in customer service who would be more suited to work as a lighthouse keeper, a dominatrix, or a monk that has taken the vow of silence.



14 thoughts on “Shop assistants who should be lighthouse keepers

  1. France – the land where the customer is always wrong. The service is also a bit impersonal and chilly until the day they realize that you are a regular customer and then the smiles come out and the service is much warmer and more personal.

    So far in Belgium the service is somewhere between France and Japan. A little warmer but, no, no one is falling over himself to help you. 🙂

    • I don’t have that association with the French, maybe because I don’t speak the language. But by the sound of it, there is no reason to learn French either, at least not to interact with shop assistants 🙂

      PS. Hope you are enjoying Belgium and your studies there.

  2. Asiakaspalvelutapahtumista saa niin paljon irti kulttuurista – mutta ehkä ainoastaan asiakaspalvelukulttuurista, who knows. Hyvä huomio, että Suomessa asiakasta kohdellaan vähän kultaisemmin pikkukaupoissa. Mielestäni oman lukunsa ansaitsevat suomalaiset bussikuskit. Viime viikolla turkulaisessa bussissa istuessani eräs pappa kävi kysymässä kuljettajalta, viekö tämä bussi Kakskertaan. Kuljettaja vastasi, ettei kiinnosta, ja lähti ajamaan. Pappa jäi siis väärään bussiin ja joutui kysymään apua muilta matkustajilta. Ja kyllä muuten hävetti kuskin puolesta.

    Toisaalta mukavat asiakaspalvelijat jäävät hyvin mieleen Suomessa. Olin jonkin kesän töissä museossa, ja kylläpä kaikki, niin matkailijat kuin paikallisetkin, ilahtuivat ystävällisyydestä. Jos taas ei jaksanut olla niin iloinen, niin asiakkaidenkin mieliala oli myrtsimpi. Asiakaspalvelija pystyy tekemään olemuksellaan todella ison muutoksen asiakkaisiin, jos vaan haluaa 🙂

    • Moi Sunna,

      Kiitos kovasi kommentista! 🙂

      Ai kauheeta mikä bussikuski. Toivottavasti pappa pääsi oikeaan paikkaan.

      Olen ihan samaa mieltä kanssasi ei palvelutilanteet välttämättä kerro maan/kulttuurin kohteliaisuudesta yleisesti.

      Mulla on monen vuoden kaupanalan kokemus Suomesta (urheilukaupan myyjänä ja päivittäistavaratalon kassalla) ennen kuin muutin ulkomaille, ja tiedän että suomalainen asiakaskin voi olla aika kärttyisä ja vähäsanainen, mutta kuten sanoit, jos asiakaspalvelija on iloinen ja positiivinen, saa hän monet asiakkaat omalla käytöksellään käyttäytymään mukavammin. 🙂

  3. Not selling you that cake is a little patronizing, I find, even if the person was nice. That just has to be your call. Having lived in the UK and the US, I’ve come to really appreciate their politeness just as a way of life. It feels more honest in the US than the UK, but that could also be due to the American mentality being so much closer to the German mentality (Brits are weird, man). Germans are mostly rude, especially in ex-communist East Germany. I can deal with it, obviously, but I like a friendly face better. 🙂

    • Yes, Brits are a little weird, but I kind of love their strange ways 😀

      For some reason I can imagine that East German customer service might not be all that friendly, but I never had any bad experiences in Leipzig. The only ‘negative’ thing I can remember is the shop assistants switching to English when I tried to practice my (extremely rusty) German 🙂

      The shop assistant at the cake counter didn’t really come across as patronizing to me, she was just adamant that the cake had to be eaten the day of purchase. Of course I could have wrestled the cake off her and buy it if I wanted, but I thought she probably meant what she said, and I didn’t want to risk giving 21 kids food poisoning the day after with curdled cream or something. The main point I was trying to make was that if a shop assistant disagrees with a customer, shop assistants in different countries express their disagreement differently. She expressed it so that it didn’t make me feel like an idiot (even though she probably thought I was insane buying a birthday cake the day before the party).

  4. Hei ja kiitos kivasta kirjoituksesta! Happy smile kuvan näkeminen toi hymyn kasvoille! Kun muutin n. 20 vuotta sitten vakituisesti Suomesta ulkomaille oli Suomessa vielä tapana teititellä.Ajan kuluessa en itse ainakaan ole enään tavannut Suomen lomillani asiakaspalvelussa oleviin jotka teitittelevät, tunnen oloni aika usein epämukavaksi asiakaspalvelussa sinuttelutilanteessa, koska tykkään kun on edes pienikin etäisyys asiakkaan ja asiakaspalvelijan ( tuntematon) välillä. Sinuttelutilanne tuo tiettyä tuttavallisuutta ja usein Suomessa ollessani huomaan että sinuttelusta on helpompi mennä henkilökohtaisiinkin kysymyksiin ja mielipiteisiin. Joskus kun on tekemisissä myyjän kanssa jolla on huonopäivä on mielenkiintoista seurata miten itse asiakkaan oma jopa yliystävällinen käytös vaikuttaa koko tilanteeseen! Hyvää päivänjatkoa! Anneli

    • Hei Anneli,

      Kiitos kivasta kommentista!

      Minä muutin Suomesta pois 16 vuotta sitten. Työskentelin silloin asiakaspalvelussa (urheiluliikkeen myyjänä), ja teitittelin vanhempia ihmisiä niin asiakkaina kuin muissakin ‘virallisissa’ tilanteissa, mutta kuten sanoit, nykyään teitittelyä kuulee vähemmän.

      Olet aivan oikeassa, asiakkaan oma käytös varmasti vaikuttaa myyjän käytökseen, ja myös toisin päin. Jos toinen heistä on yliystävällinen, saa se huonotuulisenkin keskustelukumppanin yleensä paremmalle tuulelle. Eiköhän palvelutilanteisiinkin päde vanha sanonta: ‘Niin se metsä vastaa kuin sinne huudetaan.’ 🙂

      Hyvää viikonloppua!

  5. Tosi hauska juttu taas!:D

    Täällä Sveitsissä on äärimmäisen tärkeää toivottaa hyvää päivänjatkoa kaikille. Samoin Tanskassa, missä kaupan kassa ei yleensä tervehtinyt, mutta huusi perään päivänjatkot. Aluksi se tuntui minusta jotenkin kettuilulta, mutta ilmeisesti se oli peruskohteliaisuutta! Vihaisimmat asiakaspalvelijat olen itse kohdannut Venäjällä ja Pariisissa. Huh. Mutta kyllä melkein maassa kuin maassa pikkukioskeissa saa tylyä palvelua, jopa Briteissä. Vai en tiedä onko sulla toisenlaisia kokemuksia?

    Suomessa mä ihmettelen aina miten ystävällistä palvelua siellä saa. Ainakin Uudessakaupungissa! En muista sitä ollenkaans sellaisena 90-luvulla. Mutta tosiaan, mukaan mahtuu majakanvartioita tietysti kaikkialla!

    • Joo muutkin lukijat ovat yhdistäneet Pariisin töykeään asiakaspalveluun. Ja jostain syystä mulle ei tuota ongelmia uskoa että Venäjälläkin saattaisi hymyn saaminen asiakaspalvelijalta olla kiven alla. 🙂

      Briteissä peruskohteliaisuus on useimmiten kohdallaan (mutta poikkeuksia sielläkin tietysti joskus näkee). Briteissä asiakaspalvelija on useimmiten ystävällinen ja kohtelias, mutta olen huomannut että he ovat usein huono tietotaidon kannalta. Tykkään paljon ennemmin mennä johonkin pikkukauppaan Suomessa ostamaan telttaa tai tekniikkalaitteita, koska tiedän että siellä asiakaspalvelija tietää mitä puhuu (ja pystyn ostamaan sopivimman tuotteen itselleni), ja näissä pienissä erikoistavarakaupoissa saa usein myös iloista/kohteliasta asiakaspalvelua (ehkä koska pikkukauppat eivät pysty kilpailemaan hinnalla vaan nimenomaan juuri asiakaspalvelulla).

  6. Entertaining! I generally find the Finnish customer service relatively friendly, compared to for instance the Spanish “customer service”. While the Spanish people in general exude the “joie de vivre” and seem a rather happy bunch, the customer service people usually act offended that the customers would come to bother them. When I first moved to Spain I wasn’t used to it and when trying to for instance get a drink in a bar I would stand humbly by the bar waiting for one of the waiters (who all seemed busy leaning against the wall chatting to each other) to notice me and come ask what I would like. One of them did glance in my direction apparently by accident, I smiled at them optimistically, which prompted the waiter to immediately go back to chatting to their colleague. My Spanish friend came to the rescue, wondering “why are you standing around here” and started waving and calling the waiter so loudly that it made it impossible for them to ignore us. Then, reluctantly and sullenly, they would come and take our order. After a while I accepted this level of service to be the norm and in comparison the Finns seemed like a cheerful lot!

    • Thanks so much for your interesting comment!

      When it comes to customers making restaurant staff aware that they are ready to order, Spain sounds a lot like Japan . I think it is rude to shout ‘Excuse me!’ to waiters/waitresses or wave your had in the air, but in Japan, that’s the way you tell the restaurant staff that you want their services. When we had just moved to Japan, and weren’t aware of this, we used to sit there like plums waiting for the waiter/waitress to come to us spontaneously. 😀

      I think the most important point when it comes to understanding politeness of customer service of a given country, is to view customer service situations like a native of that country. So, if in Finland a shop assistant does not smile or say thank-you I don’t get too offended because I know that’s pretty normal over there and the shop assistant didn’t necessarily mean to be rude. However, I wouldn’t put him/her snapping at me down to just them being Finnish, because I believe that’s not (or shouldn’t be!) within the boundaries of ‘acceptable behaviour’ in Finnish customer service.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s