Monday, March 14, 2011

Personalism in the United States

This past Saturday I woke up around noon and found myself running late to my ISTAC (International Students Travel Advisory Council) meeting. Being that I was hungry and pressed for time, I did what any other good college student in my situation would do: I stopped at Taco Bell to grab some food with which to clog my arteries. As I waited in line deciding on whether I wanted to order a Grilled Stuft Burrito or the Triple Heart Attack Box I couldn't help but notice that the guy working the register was extremely cordial. He was a clean-shaven guy around in his early twenties (i.e. my age) whose uniform was impeccable. I can only imagine that if I had been able to see his shoes they would have been shinier than a brand new nickel. Beyond his aesthetics, he carried himself in a very professional manner, speaking eloquently and constantly apologizing to clients for the delay in their service and asking if they needed anything else. This guy went as far as asking the customers whether or not he could get sauce for them, despite the fact that the sauce was right beside the fountain soda machine which they were going inexorably going to use.

Needless to say, I was a little shocked. Good service at a fast food place? At a Taco Bell of all placesl? It just didn't register. Having lived in the United States for well over a decade, I have become unused to good service. This however, served as a reminder that personalism still exists in this world, just not usually inside the United States. I say inside the United States because the only place where I have experienced true personalism when it comes to service is in Latin America. This should come as no surprise, as Latin America despite all of its development over the past two decades remains very much so the poster child for disparity. The rich own everything and the poor own nothing, but the poor lease from the rich. This means that the poor need to hustle as much as they can and earn every cent of that dollar that they are being paid. A perfect example of this is an anecdote told to me by a college professor about his experience on getting a haircut at a barbershop in Mexico. When he got to the barbershop he was greeted and seated immediately and offered not only coffee, but also brandy. Upon the clerk's realization that there was no brandy in stock, the clerk ran out as fast as he could to get a small bottle for the Profe. Needless to say that clerk earned his tip that day. I mention this story not to reinforce the belief that Mexicans love their booze, but to illustrate just how much they are willing to go that extra step.

Now, we could talk about classism in Latin America, the Patron-Peon Syndrome, or how the United States sacrifices service for quality, but the truth is that the United States used to be like Latin America as far as service without sacrificing quality. Once upon a time you could go to a gas station and receive full service along with a smile. You could go to the local diner and upon finishing a delicious meal you would feel compelled rather than obligated to tip your waitress. But gone are the times of full service gas stations. These days you can hardly finish your plate before the waitress is waving the bill in your face or shoving it down your throat. That and they always wait until your mouth is full before they ask you if you need something, that way you can't answer. In trying to become more efficient and more speed oriented, American costumer services have become far less costumer friendly. Instead of role models new employees now have videos that teach them how to perform a job. How much less personable can you get? Costumer service in America is so speed oriented that it has become impersonal and, ironically enough, inefficient.

I am not denouncing corporate America, but rather its approach to costumer service, which I'm sure we can all agree could use improvement. Who knows, maybe I'm overreacting and next time that I go to get my haircut I will be greeted with a smile. Perhaps I should appreciate gems such as that Taco Bell worker rather than criticize his coworkers. But for now, I'd much rather get my haircut in Latin America, where I can enjoy a little brandy in my coffee. That or maybe we can start hiring illegal immigrants to perform costumer service. After all, smiles are the one true universal language.