Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Service with more than a smile: Does over-familiarity breed contempt?

Years ago, I interviewed Natalie Merchant shortly after she left 10,000 Maniacs, and I got a little bit carried away with the pleasantries. "Hi, Natalie," I said when she got on the line, practically beaming through the phone. "How are you?" Though I stopped short of breaking into a verse of "These Are Days" and was genuinely thrilled to be talking to one of my favorite singers, I knew I had gone over the top. Awkward silence followed.

"Have we met?" Natalie asked, her voice faltering, suspicious.

"Um, I don't think so," I continued, taking the hint and toning it down for the remainder of an interview whose uncomfortable tone, I'm afraid, had already been set.

Now I understand exactly how she felt. Or maybe my time spent living in Buenos Aires -- where customer service is a rare thing indeed, and if you do track it down, it never comes with a smile -- dashed my expectations when it comes to total strangers, especially those offering goods or services to the public. Whether it's over the phone or in person, I never expect them to be anything more than civil, if that.

But as anyone who has ever met an Australian knows, that's not exactly how they operate. For a culture where hugging strangers and kissing them on the cheek is not the de rigueur social custom that it is in Argentina, or the sign of a cultured, well-travelled bent that it is in Europe and New York, Australians are a remarkably cordial bunch. Not formally so as they are in the UK, but warm and casual. What they don't offer in phony touchy-feeliness (which I admit has never been my forte anyway), they more than make up for with genuine cheerfulness.

"Hello, matey. What can I get for you?" said the guy at Gallery 324 Pizza & Pasta Bar in South Yarra when he answered the phone the other evening. For a moment, I wondered if we'd met before, and he recognized my voice from "Hello, can I make a delivery order?" Then I thought that perhaps I'd fallen through the looking glass and into the land of Care Bears, where service is always with a smile and everyone is happy just to be there. If we'd been face to face, I would have classified it as a definite come-on. That's when I remembered: This is how they roll in Melbourne.

The other day I was telling a friend here about this guy (Frank Nelson) who used to pop up occasionally on '70s sitcoms like Sanford and Son. He'd always be working in a store, and when one of the characters on the show, say, Fred Sanford, walked in and asked for help, he'd turn around with his signature "Y-e-e-e-e-s?," his somewhat mocking congeniality often, eventually, annoying the character seeking assistance. Though he'd never seen any of those shows, my friend got it, thanks to the "Frank Nelson Type" on The Simpsons, but I'm sure he's met more than a few Frank Nelsons in real life.

For me, Australia's Frank Nelson types are going to take some getting used to. I still get a little suspicious when employees are too nice to me. Are they hitting on me? Are they expecting a huge tip? Are they making fun of me? Is there some other hidden motive here? All of this was running through my head this morning when I asked the lady in the store near my gym where I could find Melbourne's Herald Sun daily newspaper. "Thank you," she said, smiling, as she pointed me in the right direction. I began to wonder what I'd done wrong. Was over-friendliness her way of admonishing me for not being polite enough when I asked for directions. After all, I'd approached her without so much as a "Good morning."

I'll never know for sure, but eventually, I'll learn to just go with it, because service with a huge smile, whether it's phony, scolding, or full of ulterior motives, is so much better than no service at all.

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