Service Culture

I saw it already quite often, whenever sitting in a restaurant or just ordering a coffee at Starbucks. But recently I had a talk with a Chinese colleague, who spent several years in Germany. And being pointed to it she confirmed my probably pretty western point of view:

It is about how to deal with service. I can remember very well that my mother tried hard to make me say “please” and “thank you” during my childhood. (Well, she actually tried to make me say “Bitte” and “Danke”, but it means the same… 😉 ) I cannot forget her pointing to the back of a public bus, which we one day happened to follow. On its left back side was a sticker. On it a car in red and a bus in green on the right side of the street at a bus stop. Attached to the bus was a big green arrow, which curved back on the street in front of the car. Meaning was clear: Please give way to busses pulling out of bus stops. And below that the word “Danke!”.

My mother had a hard time. But I believe she managed to make me quite kind a citizen. Years later my father (somehow fathers seem to have the more pleasant parts of education…) introduced me to the art of going to restaurants. There was no single outstanding event that I particularly remember when it comes to service, but over time I’ve learned that being kind to the service personnel gives you a) kind and good service in return, which makes the restaurant experience a lot more pleasant, and b) a strong negotiating position in case something goes wrong. And sometimes things simply do go wrong. We are all humans.

The already mentioned discussion with the colleague happened in a simple restaurant close to our working location. We discussed some recent events and how demanding client personnel sometimes behaved in them. Being a service company ourselves (in the end we provide IT services in form of software and consulting) I put up the theory that people behave towards us like they behave in a restaurant.

Just sitting in one I pointed to the next table: See, they just are being served, new dishes are brought to them. And the guests do not even look up. They entirely ignore the waitress, but grab the newly povided food right away. No 谢谢, no friendly word. And the bill is ordered with a blunt 买单, the money thrown on the table and any change taken without a word. Despite the nice (however over time a bit annoying because never-changing) greeting of the door ladies they go without a word.

The only chance of an ordinary restaurant customer here to talk to the service personnel is certainly when ordering (which even for native Chinese speakers, however, often works with pointing to the dishes in the menu) or when something goes wrong. But then in a loud voice as to make sure that the entire room knows as to what went wrong.

I am sometimes thinking that people want to show that they can afford going to restaurants, can afford taking a coffee at Starbucks (at costs 5 times higher than a bowl of noodle soup in a street-side booth). And maybe people think that this little wealth already entitles them to being served.

As a foreigner I probably have a bit of a bonus anyway. But as soon as I add “please” to my order or say “thank you” when receiving bill or change people behind the counter are all smiles. Over time the East-West (that restaurant mentioned above) and the Starbucks people started to recognize me. The latter even by name. Sure, it’s simpler to recognize the blond westerner. But I see that the service people do recognize quite a lot of foreigners. But not any single Chinese, although I do see some of them appearing quite often.

Last Saturday I had a late quick lunch at a Japanese noodle restaurant nearby. While spooning my soup a young couple entered and was directed to a window table. A short while later, probably while serving the free tee, something crashed and splashed. Some rough words, the waitresses hurried to bring some tissues. The young man was standing, looking down on himself, his girl-friend gazing in shock. And another half a minute later the young couple left the restaurant again. I could not see any apparent hint that the man got some tea (or whatever it was) spilled over his trousers. Can’t have been that bad. But nevertheless they felt badly treated, not served properly, and thought that the worst punishment they could give to the restaurant is to leave. How foolish…at that restaurant you regularly have to wait in line during peak times. They can easily afford one customer less.

I find that quite narrow-minded. A ‘good’ German customer would —after the first shock is over and the worst stains are treated— just smile at the waitress and take his chance to check out if he can get a desert or more for free as compensation. Which the head waiter or restaurant manager would usually offer without much thinking before anyone could even ask. And everybody would be more or less happy again.

In my next life I open the “International School for Good Manners and the Art of Having a Pleasant Dinner” (you need long self-speaking names in China ;). That would be a life-fullfilling task and a never-ending story.

My mother would be proud of me.

Categories: Shanghai

Originally Created: 09/19/2006 02:26:19 PM
Last Edited: 09/19/2006