Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Speaking Up

With the exception of one person I can think of (Chris), I don't personally know a single Brit who would speak up if he/she was being unfairly treated and/or the quality of service being received was not up to par.  But I do.  I don't know if it's my personality or because I'm American (in hindsight, I think it's a bit of both), but damn right I will say something if I'm not happy.  In general, I think it's an American trait or quality to speak your mind and it's something I'm proud of (generally, unless my temper takes over and I get in trouble ... ask me about that some other time).  But most of the British population are too polite to speak up and even when they do, the passive-agressive tone of voice they adopt doesn't get them anywhere.  I'm not saying that shouting and yelling will get you anywhere, but directness sure does. 

I once confessed to Natalie that I had no "phone confidence", as in, I hate answering the phone at work.  I think it's either going to be an irate author or agent and I'll completely lose my cool and start stuttering.  But Natalie said quite the opposite:  "People listen to you because you're a scary American.  If I was on the other end of the phone I'd be scared.  You sound more than confident, you just sound ... scary."  Maybe.  Or maybe I just omit the "if you could ...", "perhaps" and my personal favorite "I'd be very grateful if ..." from my conversations with people.  Especially if I want something. 

For example, if I've paid for a service, I demand to have it.  A couple years ago, I was eating dinner in a pub with John and a friend (also named John ... *sigh* ... see my post a few weeks back about English names).  I decided to order a treacle sponge cake for dessert at the bar.  After ordering, I went back to my seat.  15 minutes later, it still hadn't arrived.  "I wonder where my pudding is ..." I said aloud.  One of the Johns said, "It'll be here soon."  After 20 minutes, I got up.  "Where are you going?" asked another John.  "To find out where my dessert went!"  "I'm sure it'll be here soon."  "Yeah, well I'm not waiting another hour!"  I marched up to the counter and demanded to know where my treacle sponge was.  I wanted it, dammit.  I got all worked up about its syrupy goodness.  "Oh, we ran out," said the guy behind the counter. "WHAT?!" I shrieked (ok, maybe exclaimed, rather than shrieked).  "You could have told me that HALF AN HOUR AGO."  He considered me for a minute.  "Do you want a refund?"  Did I want a refund?  No, I just wanted to give you my money for the dessert as a charitable donation.  YES I WANT A REFUND!  He looked surprised that I wanted my money back.  "Lucky I didn't listen to you guys," I said, returning to the table.  "Would've been waiting here for an hour."  But see, the difference is, they would have.  Probably.

Another incident occurred at the Regent Street location of Habitat.  This had more to do with customer service than anything else.  The thing is, I worked two pretty crappy sales-assistant summer jobs as a teenager.  And ok, I get that customer service in America is a lot different than in the UK ... there's no one standing at the door of Topshop here, greeting you in a high-pitched shrill voice with "HAYYYYY GUYYYYSSSSS HOW'S IT GOINNNNNNNN ... JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOOWWWW OUR GRAPHIC TEES ARE 2 for TENNNNNNNN OKKKAYYYYYYY????"  Not even in sales-driven stores.  No, they just generally ignore you here even if they see you're struggling.  I think it's part of the retail culture.  Two extremes.  However, it seems to me that if you're a customer, you deserve to be treated with at least some modicum of respect.

Case in point: John and I found a coffee table we really liked at this particular Habitat.  It looked like the only one left, and didn't have a price on it, so John walked over to the sales assistant standing idly 3 feet away and asked how much it was.  She turned slowly, eyed the table and said "Ask at the till."  "Ok, thanks," said John.  Um, excuse me?  "She said ask at the till," John said.  "Why can't she do it?" I asked loudly.  "It's kind of her job?" The girl heard me and glared, responding rudely, "Look on the website."  That's when I kind of lost it.  "Excuse me?  Look on the website?  What do you think I'm doing in store?"  John was mortified.  "Calm down," he pleaded.  "I will NOT calm down," I said, trying not to raise my voice.  "That is SO RUDE."  The girl glared at me and I clocked her nametag, which read "Irene."  I'm sorry, but when I walk into a not-exactly-low-budget store looking for a piece of furniture and ask a simple question - THE PRICE - I'd like to be given an answer and not have to go on a wild goose chase myself to find out.  Thankfully, a very polite and helpful assistant stepped in and rectified the situation.  I was still pretty pissed off.  It wasn't so much her laziness that bothered me, but her bad attitude and I have an inability to accept a situation that I don't think is fair in my mind.  The way I react to it is a different story.  But I think that one should always speak up if something is unacceptable, not let it go and grumble under your breath or meekly accept the rudeness.


  1. Oh dear, do not feel at all proud at what you say. It's ALWAYS my anger that forces me to say something, and I just dread to think of the number of times I'v landeded myself deep in the mire for spouting forth and displaying no British (mid to upper class) restraint. Chris (how on earth do I get my name at the end of the message? Must I join twitter or facebook?)

  2. oh, like mother like daughter! Xannax is our best friend.

  3. Oh God! What does all that mean? My lack of an Oxbridge education becomes glaringly obvious at times like this. Chris.

  4. You know, I tend to be a non-confrontation type of person (very un-American of me) but that sales girl incident would've pissed me off too. As I get older I have less patience for people who simply cannot do what they are being *paid* to do. Honestly, retail may not be fun but for god's sake it is not rocket science. (I've never worked retail but I worked in food service, I imagine it's pretty similar)

  5. I agree - no one says anything. And likewise don't make an effort to comment on exceptional service. If someone goes out of their way to help me, managers are always surprised that I bothered to mention it to them. They're braced for a complaint!


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