Thursday, January 22, 2009

When politeness is an evolutionary deadend

This article claims that British men died on the Titanic because they were too polite and gentlemanly, whereas those pushy individualistic Americans forced their way onto lifeboats and survived. It's notable that it's on the BBC website (I wonder what Americans would make of it?)

As someone who was raised on a diet of Enid Blyton and later Jane Austen, I sometimes think my manners are from the age of the Titanic (I often find myself at the back of queues - especially when there is a mad scramble for something).

I am regularly suprised (or disappointed) by bad British behaviour - especially the kind of "anything goes, it's alright we're just having a laugh" sort of comments made by people like Chris Moyles. This story about a mob of people in Derbyshire who shouted "get on with it" to a suicadal teenage on a roof-top, and filmed him on their mobile phones (he jumped and died), is a worrying case of a kind of callous attitude that seems to have become more popular over the last decade. Maybe it's all the damp dark weather but we are overwhelmingly a nation of cynical puddleglums whose sense of humour is often muddy black. I sometimes feel that I share nothing in common with many of the people who live in the UK - and that if someone was to invent a time machine, I'd gladly hop inside it and go back to the start of the century (which was hideously prejudiced but at least people had impeccable manners).

I suppose we can reconcile ourselves to the fact that in the equivalent of a modern day Titanic disaster, British men would no longer wait at the back of the boat with a cigar, but would propel their considerably overweight frames to the front of the queue, knocking women and children out of the way, and then record people drowning on their mobile phones, which would then get onto Youtube, annotated with comments like "omg! nice 1! wot a fuckin laff!"

But I never feel more Edwardian than when I visit America (where cynicism is not a particularly major trait - but earnestly felt and extreme emotions of any kind are never far away. The experience begins the minute you step off the plane and arrive at customs and immigration (or "Homeland Security"). The people who check over your passport are possibly the most humourless, robotic, paranoid and curt people in the world, making the experience of getting into America (as a foreigner) something of an ordeal (especially if you are not used to been treated like a potential terrorist or someone who they suspect is an illegal immigrant). I hope for the sake of their loved ones it is simply their training and they can drop it when they get home - it would be very disconcerting to have your father or partner bark orders at you and treat you like scum.

You are eyed suspiciously while the questions you are asked often appear arbitrary and are not even followed up properly. Last month I was asked for my weight and height (which were entered into a computer), although my fella was not asked these things (instead he was given the third degree about a Syrian stamp in his passport - he had been on a very boring trip to look at castles there rather than trying to procure a dirty bomb). I was asked why I visited America in February. I wasn't expecting the question and because of the atmosphere of fear and stress that Homeland Security is at great pains to create, my brain blanked - I couldn't remember and was unable to give a coherent answer, instead I started babbling and apologising. I practically ended up screaming "Don't do it to me, Do it to Julia!" (That's a little Orwellian humour for you.) Having satisfied themselves that I could be easily "broken" they didn't pursue the matter any further. On another occasion I was led off into a small room with two-way mirrors, left for ages and then asked "Have you ever been in prison?" When I said "no", they let me go without any more questions, apologies for keeping me waiting ages or explanations. Another time I was hauled off to the side because my luggage wasn't big enough(!) Even when Homeland Security attempts to be courteous, it comes off badly - these are the only people who can make "Welcome to America" into a threat.

I would hope that as part of President (no-longer-elect) Obama's policy of extending a hand of friendship to the world, he would maybe get Homeland Security people to smile and treat tourists (who are after all there to spend money - which in a recession, they should be encouraging) as human beings.

Second, President Obama might want to do something about the way people go on in shops. There is a kind of pseudo-politness in many shops (especially ones like Gap and Banana Republic) whereby people are paid to "stroke" you. At the start, this involves a "greeter" saying hi to you as you enter. It isn't real though. At my most recent visit to Banana Republic three different employees said exactly the same thing to me: "I love the colour of that shirt you've chosen!" When it becomes robotic and repetitive, it's clear that they've been told to say it and if you chose any colour they'd say the same thing. Guess what - it doesn't help to create customer loyalty or make me feel like I have a special relationship with the shop - it feels patronising and annoying - I am less likely to "come again". The single thing which would make a difference is actually getting people to perform the task of ringing up your purchases and putting them in a bag more quickly and efficiently. While there is all this false "I love your colour choices", some of them seem to drag their heels rather on purpose when you've actually made the decision to buy something and they have you at the checkout.

In British shops, the reverse is generally the case. Assistants avoid you and often look upset, worried or insulted if you ask them a question. But conversely, they ring through your purchases as quickly as possible (perhaps to avoid prolonging the interaction any more than necessary). I think I will holiday in Denmark next time (where they have apparently rejected selfish capitalism altogether and are a lot happier for it).

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