Politeness can be overdone

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Politeness can be overdone


Daniel Tudor

I’m writing this column from the Dominican Republic, where I’m making a documentary. I know nothing about television, and what has surprised me the most is how time-consuming and tiring the work is. Today is my day off though, so I have a little time to relax and reflect on the experience so far.

This country seems to be the absolute opposite of Korea. We were joking among ourselves about borrowing loads of money and taking over the hotel we’re currently staying in, because although it is a beautiful place, nothing seems to work. Anything that can be slow (such as an Internet connection) or outright broken (such as the humble plug socket in my room), is indeed slow or broken. Things get sorted out in the end, but only after the guy whose job it is comes back from lunch. And he’s definitely having a nice, long lunch.

Having lived in Seoul, I’m now sadly used to repeatedly pushing the button to close the doors of an elevator as soon as I get into it. So when I see people with a ‘manana’ (tomorrow…) attitude toward everything, I become frustrated. But cliche as it is to say, people here seem to be much happier. Perhaps there’s a grand unified theory connecting tropical weather, economic development and philosophy of life, waiting to be elucidated.

The other thing I noticed is that the staff here talk to guests as though they were their friends. Though they are pouring our drinks and cleaning our rooms, there’s an air of informality about every interaction. I haven’t heard the word “Sir,” or an “I’m so sorry” (for some trivial problem not genuinely worthy of a “sorry”) yet. And I have to say, it feels wonderful.

A few weeks ago, I was in Jeju Island for a conference. The hotel was excellent, and the service was in fact too good, in my opinion. Whenever I crossed paths with a member of staff, I was met with a bow and a deferential “Good morning/Hello/How are you, Sir,” and when using the elevator, I wasn’t even able to push the button myself - there was always someone there, asking me whether I wanted to go up or down, in American-accented English. Pushing the button myself would apparently have been beneath me.

I wondered about what was really going on in the mind of the man grinning at me and pressing the lift button. His life must be soul-destroyingly repetitive, for sure. But more than that, at the very heart of his task is subservience. Subservience isn’t a by-product of the job - it is more like the whole job itself.

During my university days, I spent one summer in a call center, asking the tardy to cough up for their gas bills. My main memory from this time is being constantly sworn at by complete strangers, while having to remain perfectly polite myself. There is even an academic term for this kind of work: “emotional labor,” where one must be deferent and put the customer on a pedestal regardless of one’s actual feelings. Other things being equal, such work is more stressful and more alienating than other jobs.

I don’t think much has been written about the other person in the “emotional labor” transaction, though. Why is it that the customer wants to be treated like a king? All I want is for things to work, and for people to be polite. They don’t have to call me “Sir,” or press a button that I’m perfectly capable of pressing myself. Service staff may be there to help me out, but I neither need nor want the introduction of hierarchy into the exchange. It can even be deeply uncomfortable. In some way, it makes me feel as though I am oppressing the other person.

It seems to me though that some people enjoy the “king” role a little too much. There are those who fail the so-called “waiter test” - people who may be nice to you over dinner, but talk down to the restaurant staff. Perhaps some of them have horrible bosses and seek to lord it over someone else as a kind of revenge by proxy. And perhaps some simply feel they ought to be superior to others. Either way, there seems something psychologically weird about the tendency.

Around a year ago, I left my job, and now live a freelance life. For the previous three years, I had worked as a foreign correspondent. In this job, I had occasional opportunities to be treated somewhat like a king, but at the same time, I also had a boss who had the definite upper hand in my life.

The absence of hierarchical relationships has actually proven an unexpected benefit of not having what society calls a “proper job.” I feel like a free human being for the first time.

*The author is the former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

BY Daniel Tudor

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