Lost in translation: basic manners in London

If you are a kiwi and have ever left kiwiland, you’ll know that we are referred to as ‘such a friendly people’ by many other areas of west-ville. I wondered at this patronising but positive impression previously, as I’ve certainly met enough rude people in the homeland, but I’m beginning to understand.

What we’re talking about here, what gives New Zealanders this reputation, is just basic manners.

When I read ads for jobs in the UK that require ‘excellent customer service’ , I can’t help but think:

Even in times that I’ve had to endure, shall we say, less than perfect jobs, I certainly realise there’s much worse out there, and so I always try to be a friendly, easy customer wherever I can, and brighten someone’s day if it’s ever possible. The guy checking parking tickets or clearing your table deserves more of your gratitude than your accountant or lawyer, not less, since they’re doing it for peanuts. I know from early experiences of being a minion at one of the most hated mutli-national conglomerates on earth that a ‘hey how are ya?’ and being treated like a human being rather than an ordering machine can really make a difference to your work-life satisfaction.

That’s me trying to be a decent human being, and appreciating the service given to me. But what about the people who are PAID to offer ME customer service? Again, I know from experience that my day went faster and more pleasantly if I made an effort to interact, to have momentary relationships with others, and if I made someone else’s day better, they would inevitably improve mine as well.

That is an entirely foreign concept in London. I could not count on all my fingers and toes (although perhaps on my receipts) the amount of times I’ve walked up to a counter with no greeting, no smile, no response to my ‘hi, how are you?’, no ‘thank you’, and again, no response to my ‘cheers, have a good night, see ya later.’

None of these are great game-changing speeches or meant to woo across the counter, but they’re placeholders that define and outline the expected behaviour of strangers in the momentary relations that we choose to engage in, or are forced into, all day – every day. While none of us expect a particularly genuine answer to ‘hi, how are you?’, I would not have believed (prior to the UK) that I could have an interaction with a shop attendant that involved them not saying a single word to me. There’s not even the Americanism of ‘cash or credit?’ as they just see my card in hand, press a button and gesticulate towards the machine.

At the other end of the spectrum is a particular store whose standard customer service involves asking, at the point where your transaction is just going through, ‘did you find everything you were looking for today?’  I mean, a) yes I did that’s why I’m transacting with you, genius, or b) no I didn’t but you can’t help me coz you’re tied to this checkout lane, and why would I want to go find it now that my card is processing?’ Naturally the socially-awkward kiwi in me says says ‘yes, thanks very much’ (for nothing!). At the same store, different branches, I’m told step-by-step how to make an electronic transaction. Just because my hand is hovering over the machine waiting for it to ask my pin doesn’t mean I know how to put my pin in apparently. It would be different if I was standing there blankly or fiddling about mindlessly, but if I’m holding the card and staring at the screen, don’t tell me to pull it out just as I’m doing so! It makes me want to be a sarcastic b*tch to you, and nobody wants that.

When it comes to walking the streets, I wish there were more hookers in London because no one else has any idea what they’re doing. When I moved to Wellington I thought it slightly disturbing and Logan’s Run-ish that Lambton Quay had an unspoken but extremely regimented pedestrian law that exactly replicated driving laws, including right of way and turning procedures. But oh how I miss the implicit understanding between foot-commuters. I recall remarking (in my days of shift work) that my walk home took 5 whole minutes more during peak traffic than it did when I went to work at 6am. Dear Lord the humanity!

I’ve now come to accept that Google Maps’ estimations of traveling time, while being mainly aimed at the lowest common denominator of aging American tourist with camera where eyes should be, are actually incredibly accurate at any time of day that must-needs incorporate the onslaught of human barriers. Fellow kiwi-in-london-er LD and I can’t help but refer to the hordes as Zombies (‘Ohemgee the mall zombies were bad today’) and usually-mild-mannered LD has surprised me on several occasions now by swearing aloud at the more blatantly inconsiderate ‘walkers’.

While her suggestion to ‘high-five them in the face” is constantly appealing, I don’t think I’ve been here quite long enough to override my kiwi sensibilities to the point of cursing people on the streets. But I have noticed a massive increase in my over-loud sighing. Like, right in their faces. They know what they did…

So is politeness a basic skill that not everyone is taught? Do Kiwis lord it over others because we’re blessed with the low population that means we have the time and space to treat people as people and not nuisances in OUR GODDAMNED WAY?!

Fellow kiwi KJM famously says (of everything about the homeland), “we just don’t have the population for it.” Do we not have the population for rudeness?

I hope we never do.

2 thoughts on “Lost in translation: basic manners in London

  1. shmennikins

    There’s also the 2-degrees-of-separation thing at work in Enzed – if you’re a bitchy customer, either the salesperson will know you, or another customer will, and they’ll mention it to a mutual friend, who will ask you why you were in such a bad mood at lunchtime and is everything ok? Or, conversely, if you’re a shit retail person, you won’t get another job because someone working at your prospective job will know who you are and will advise against your hiring. I’ve seen that happen in a professional environment as well as hospo – ‘We’re thinking of hiring X – do any of you know them?’ ‘Ooh, yeah, they’re a massive drama.’ ‘Oh, ok. *bins CV*’.

    1. shapelle Post author

      Of COURSE! I didn’t even think about that as a reason to provide good service, but it makes sense really – I mean I’d like to think that we’re all just naturally charming, friendly, hard-working folks, but who’m I kidding?


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