I believe I’ve stumbled upon the reason why customer service in post-Soviet countries is so often awful to the point of non-existence. Simply put, the customer didn’t exist during Soviet times – in the most dire moments, you didn’t go to the store to buy things, you bought whatever things were currently in the store, regardless if those were packages of nylon stockings or pounds of ground beef. So cashiers or store attendants didn’t really care whether you liked or wanted something or what you thought of their tone of voice – as far as they were concerned, you should be happy to get anything.
This arrogant attitude unfortunately permeated all aspects of public life, and thus ensured anybody trying to get anything done in a government-dependent office was pretty much reduced to feeling like a measly form of lowlife for even existing.
How do I know this, you ask? After all, the first time I visited a post-Soviet country, I was only 5, and I started college in Poland a full decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I know this precisely BECAUSE I attended college in Poland. While known for its stellar academics, the public university I attended was not actually friendly towards students (who again? Oh, them). The reasons are multiple, and I’ll post one day about the differences between attending college in Poland and the US. But the general feeling among students was that of unwelcome intruders on the real work the university wanted to do (what that real work was we never found out, but I presume it was research); whenever we would stand for the third hour straight in line to try to catch a professor who had once again ignored duty hours, or get yelled at by the
goddess wielding our fate in her hands dean’s secretary for daring to ask about scholarships being paid, we would look at each other and say, “Well, it’s not like the university is for students anyway.”
I also know about this restricted, bureaucratic mindset because once I wanted to go to the reading room in the National Library in Warsaw and the receptionist refused to let me in because I didn’t have a Polish identity card. A passport with a current photo was rejected, as she claimed “This is not an adequate proof of identity.” Adequate for customs officers and airline officials in countries all over the world, but not for this receptionist…
After having lived in Poland for 10 years, attended university and even worked at a cultural institute funded by regional authorities, I’ve seen my fair share of ridiculous attitudes rooted in the lack of acceptance of the regime change that happened, well, twenty years ago.
But in Poland, such disrespect and arrogance is usually confined to the public sector. In stores and supermarkets, one is greeted and attended to with a smile. Most young people working in stores in Warsaw speak fair English and a smattering of other tourist languages. The hotels I have worked with in Warsaw have always provided stellar service to complement their immaculate, often recently restored facilities. And most people are friendly, smiling, and willing to help.
But change comes slower to some other places, I guess, and the rudeness or lack of interest in customers (entities that didn’t exist just a few decades ago in many of these countries) in post-Soviet countries has often been decried by Western travelers.
I’ve organized events in a fair share of places around the globe, each with inbuilt cultural and linguistic challenges, but working with a sanatorium in Kazakhstan to bring about a successful training event was almost as hard as making sure 30 mimes didn’t set fire to themselves (and my office) in a bitter dispute about the proper color and texture of clay needed for a performance.
I survived both, and lived to tell all – but tomorrow.