Published in The London Lite in 2009, but the link no longer exists…
As a non-native Londoner, there are two things about the city that probably upset me more than someone who has lived there all their life. Numero Uno is the weather. After another summer that never was, I’ve privately renamed the months from June through to August ‘bummer-time.’ But I didn’t come to London expecting it to be otherwise, and there are plenty of naughty and nice things to do indoors.
My second gripe – the gripe this column space goes out to – is the sloppy customer service. It’s so bad it’s weird. For a while it freaked me out and I kept thinking I must have had food stuck in my teeth or I wasn’t asking properly. So I tried being more polite, then I tried to be more direct; I tried to be funny (which was pretty sad), and then I tried being unpleasant back. Sometimes I want to stamp my foot, but so far have resisted.
I am fed up with the scowls, the patronising, withering answers, and the “I-don’t-know-you’ll-have-to-go-annoy-someone-else” line. It happens on the phone, over email, in the bank, at the post office, at the doctor’s surgery and the public sector office where I work. It’s reliably appalling. In countries with a service culture (America being the most obvious example), a service assistant in a shop would actually initiate an exchange with a cheery, “Do you need help finding something?” instead of being made to feel like a brat or a nuisance.
When I search for answers and shared indignation with other ‘internationals,’ they (mostly) whole-heartedly agree that things are pretty grim. But vintage Londoners seem not to have taken it to heart, shrugging it off as the fait accompli of a big city. They say that the people serving me are being paid such a low wage to do such menial work that I can’t expect a smile with my change. However I am from a country where very similar shops and services exist, and the pay, comparatively speaking, is probably worse than here. So I’m still confused by it.
And it’s odd, because my non-commercial experiences with the ‘person on the street’ have been so positive. Yesterday I asked for directions and walked away with a hand-drawn map. So I’ve come to the conclusion that in London you can get something for nothing, but a whole lot less than that if you’re paying for it.