Monday, December 26, 2005

The Way it is Here

I love living in the UK. Among other things, I find it endlessly fascinating from a sociological and ethnographic perspective. Watching interactions between people, trying to figure out the rules for conversation, making friends, attempting to pronounce things correctly -- you'll never believe how they pronounce the herb 'oregano', with the stress on the third syllable rather than the second! And the 'a' in 'oregano' rhymes with the 'o' in the name 'Donald'! -- all these are quite a lot of fun, delightful little quotidian mysteries, and only ocasionally stressful and frustrating.

At another time, I'll hold forth on the topic of accent and vocabulary (and to what degree it is appropriate to try to pick them up when not a native speaker. Briefly, some people seem to think it is not 'authentic' to do so; I think quite otherwise.). (BTW, some good thoughts on authenticity (or should I say 'authenticity'?) by AKMA here and here.)

Anyway, I had an exchange on the 'phone last Friday night that summarised so much of my experience here for me. We were preparing for our Christmas dinner, and we had planned rack of lamb. Unfortunately, the grocers we frequent had sold out. I called around to a few more shops to no avail. Finally, I called a large market just south of town. Going there involved a bicycle ride of maybe five miles, mostly in the dark, but I was willing to go. I just wanted some idea of whether or not the trip would be worth it. Here's the conversation as it unfolded:

Me: Hello, I was calling to see if you had rack of lamb in stock?

Harrassed-sounding, brusque middle class woman: We can't put any aside for you.

Me: Well, I was just calling to see if you had any in stock.

H-s,bmcw: We might, I don't know, but we can't set any aside and hold it for you.

Me (Not really grasping that she hadn't answered my question, just wanting some idea of whether it was worth going there): Well, I'm fairly close, we'll be there tonight.

H-s, bmcw: Well, that might be but there is no way we can hold it for you.

Me: I'd just like to check if you have any in stock.

H-S, bmcw: Fine, but I can't guarantee that it will be here when you arrive. I'll transfer you to the meat and fish department.

Me: Thank you.

Friendly-sounding working class man: Meat and fish department.

Me: Hello, I just wanted to call and check if you have rack of lamb.

F-s wcm: How much do you need?

Me: About a kilogram.

F-s wcm: Sure,we've got that much. What's your name?

(There was a time when I would have been surprised by this, but now I take it in stride.)

Me: Jason

F-s wcm: And your surname?

I told him.

F-s wcm: Okay, I'll set it aside for you. Just come back to the meat and fish counter and ask for it.

Me: Thank you very much, we'll be in shortly.

(The funny thing is that it never actually occurred to me to ask them to set it aside.)

This sort of thing happens all the time. Oh, the genders or the classes might be reversed, or the setting might be different (it happens in the university all the time), but this basic scenario plays itself out quite regularly. One person will insist that thus-and-such is the case, and that there is never any variation, and another person will calmly and politely do thus-and-such, giving the distinct impression that they not only do so regularly, but that it is their job to do thus-and-such.

One of the upshots of this is that if you ask a question and get an unfavourable answer, it might well pay to ask the question again, maybe of someone else. (It must be said that this odd practice generally works out benevolently.) It seems that there are rules for everything, and that everyone knows them, and everyone disregards them in certain circumstances. The key is just figuring out which rules, when, and why.


Blogger pasmoof said...

I guess that just goes to show you good customer service isn't a myth. It's nice to see people go that extra mile. I know I'm the kind of person who appreciates that.

Thursday, December 29, 2005 9:45:00 PM  

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