Saturday, August 19, 2006

On politeness on two coasts

So, it's really easy to complain about poor customer service and grumpy folks in the northeast, particularly as a northwestern ex-pat. Coming from Bellingham, Washington, where our local Haggen had a wine steward and employees were paid real live living wages, to Binghamton, New York, where our local small grocery chain hires sullen 16-year-olds. . .though whether those teenagers were sullen prior to working for them is up for debate.

Then, living in Jersey this past year, I learned to respect the bluntness of folks--that is, they like you or they don't. They're nice to you or they're not. No dancing around the issue.

Me, I was raised amongst the Scandinavian-American-Lutheran tribes of metropolitan Seattle. I tried to explain to folks out here that special kind of politeness we exude. It's not shmarmy or hypocritical, really. It's just that it only goes so deep. But then, when I was googling Luke Burbank (a fellow Seattle native), who's been guest hosting one of my favorite NPR shows, I came across this in an interview he did with the Seattle Times:

Q: How has life in Seattle prepared you for NPR?

A: Actually, NPR is like a giant Seattle, as a company, as a corporation, in that people in Seattle tend to be very nice. People in Seattle tend to smile to your face and then send a letter to your city that your dog was barking, and then you get a letter and you don't know which neighbor sent it — this is something that happened to me when I lived in Hawthorne Hills. And NPR is like that. They're very good people, everyone's very nice, a lot of people wearing polar fleece, but you've got to kind of watch your back a little bit.

That letter-sender wouldn't really do that to be mean, necessarily, but because they wouldn't say it to your face--that's not nice. Instead, they'll work through the system, whether that system is the gossip network of the Lutheran ladies or the proper channels for noise complaints.

So, my friends, keep that in mind with me. Not that I'm planning to do anything behind your back, but I'm not really as naive as that exterior niceness suggests to outsiders. See, folks at home would know how to read this face.


Dr. Write said...

Yes, in Seattle I always felt like everyone was my friend, but only so good of a friend. Not my friend friend, but just a "friend." In SLC, it just takes a long time to be a friend friend. Like 8 years. But everyone here is nice. Almost too nice. But they wouldn't send a letter about your dog. They'd just talk to the other neighbors about while smiling their pasted on smiles.
But I'm not like that. I'm just mean

middlebrow said...

Ah, Haggen. Fond memories. You realize I worked at Haggen for about seven years while living in Bellingham. And, yes, I provided customer service with a smile! It paid my way through Western.