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.
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.