Ladies and gents, this is your Captain speaking…

“It’s not as if I’m never friendly. Okay, maybe I don’t go around loving everybody I meet, maybe my smiles are hard to come by, but i do care for some people.”  (The Hunger Games)

North Americans….they’re all about the friendliness, yes? I could write an ode to the friendliness of Vancouverites, but I’d get stuck on the verse about customer service. I can’t decide which way to go with it, the experiences have been so diverse. I get the same buses every day stuffed in Kate’s bag and have therefore gotten to know a lot of the drivers on the bus route. They span the whole cross-section of humanity – some practically know my name, they’re genuinely happy to see me and really hope I have a good day when they wave goodbye as I get off the bus. A great example was a recent new driver on the route – his ‘in-flight’ announcements were phrased as if he were the pilot of a plane, rather than the driver of a bus. He announced things like “ladies and gents, this is your Captain speaking. There is another bus behind me which is empty if you’d like to get on that when we stop. Don’t tell him I sent you…!” and berating passengers waiting at a stop for a different bus “Ah come on, get on – I’m paid by the kilo”. What a guy – he was entertaining us for his own amusement, there was no hidden agenda with his attitude, and we all got off with an extra spring in our step that morning.

However, when we move across different industries, we encounter a different set-up. One of the main, marked differences between the UK and Canada has to be the customer service element to every tiny interaction throughout every day. Now, this is not to say that in the UK there is no concept of customer service, or that in Canada they have great customer service, just that a whole different approach is taken. The cynics among us might call this ‘doing it for the tips’. Customer service in Vancouver bars and restaurants takes on a life of its own – it is the friendly elephant in the room – the one wearing a short tight skirt and high heels who greets you the second you enter a building. Now, this is great for lots of reasons – you don’t have to queue at a bar in lots of places, someone brings you drinks (a massive plus), you find yourself being drawn into conversation and occasionally learn new things, the quality of food tends to be higher and service is quicker. Generally. Strangely enough, however, this concept doesn’t filter through to industries other than the hospitality sector. Shops, for example, have a whole other customer service code, which I am still trying to figure out. They smile, they chat, they ask you how your day’s been….that isn’t the problem. The problem arises when you ask them for help and they don’t know the answer. This is where the two countries divide – in England, if this scenario crops up, on the whole the assistant might attempt to help you find out the answer. They might call another store, they might ask a colleague.They might look up the answer online or in a catalogue. In short, they see your problem as their problem. In Vancouver, we have the opposite – your problem is your problem; if the assistant can help by telling you something that they know off the top of their head, they will probably do so. But if they don’t immediately know the answer to your question, god help you. They might give you some helpful ‘advice’ (“have you tried googling it?”), or just look at you like you’re crazy. They might (in some instances that I have witnessed) snap “well I don’t know the answer to that, try someone else”. Or they play the ‘I don’t understand your accent well enough to understand what you’re asking’ card, which is the one they keep under the counter for unintelligible foreigners such as the Brits. It never ceases to amaze me – in a country (and indeed a continent) that is renowned for the smiling fake customer service (“have a nice day, now”), the contrast between these different elements of service is startling. And neither really feels honest – you veer wildly from the effervescent, chatty sometimes intrusive hospitality sector to the sullen, sulky and downright unhelpful attitude of some people behind a retail counter – are either of these attitudes real? It seems that people become caricatures of themselves when they accept these positions – they can’t really be that happy or that sullen in real life. Unless…everyone here begins life with a natural demeanour, genuinely interested in the world and people around them. Until someone tips them 20%, and a new beast is born – ladies and gents, meet the career barmaid hostess.

Would you like fries with that?


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