Monday, February 22, 2010

Be nice to shop assistants

You may think you're religious, well-brought up, very liberal, or simply a very nice person. There's only one way to find out.

You may have heard about the allegations of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's bullying of his staff.

Yesterday's Observer referred to "abusive behaviour and volcanic eruptions of foul temper" as it reproduced extracts from journalist Andrew Rawnsley's new book.

Apparently, the culture at No.10 is/was one of rage, fear and paranoia, with many members of staff -even at the lowest level- victims of bullying from Prime Ministerial circles. According to National Bullying Helpline boss Christine Pratt, "three or four people" from Gordon Brown's office had contacted the charity in recent years.

Now. For the sake of balance, we must also remind you that Andrew Rawnsley has a new book to flog and that, as one of the most senior Observer columnists, he may have been given ample backing by his own paper. It's also true that Peter Mandelson has said that Brown is no bully and that he is simply "demanding of people".

However, and here I pick up on an excellent point made by Neil Robertson at The Bleeding Heart Show, whether it counts semantically as "bullying" or not, nobody should routinely shout at staff - at any level, in any organisation. Not even the Prime Minister. It doesn't matter if he's stressed. He should ask the earthlings in his office how they feel.

Neil writes:
"Over the years, I’ve developed a completely arbitrary but generally quite reliable method for measuring a person’s moral worth. Where some people might totter up a person’s good deeds, charitable giving, political beliefs or religion, mine is far more straightforward: Are you nice to shop assistants?".
For years, I had the misfortune (or maybe the fortune) of working as a barman, waiter, receptionist. These are amongst the lowest paid, most repetitive, least rewarding jobs in the country. You're supposed to be efficient, nice, polite, smiley, professional, obedient, aware, meticulous, patient, punctual, on the ball and sympathetic for the minimum wage or little more. You're supposed to give up most week-ends and bank holidays. While excellent for social observation and developing misanthropy, those jobs offer no incentive whatsoever .

Truth is, most people haven't seen what life is like on the other side of the counter, desk or till. It may not be their fault, but they're simply not aware of the difference a smile or an understanding customer can make. Most don't even think you're a disposable piece of shit who's taking stick for something you're not responsible for. It simply doesn't cross their mind.

You can think you're religious, well-brought up, very liberal, or simply a very nice person. But it's on those occasions that, like Neil says, "your moral worth" comes across.

Politics, in those cases, counts jackshit.

This is simply my personal experience, but allow me to say that the nicest, most humane, most understanding manager I've ever worked with was actually an old school arch-Tory, a pub landlord. We used to have lots of political chats and debates during dead afternoons and evenings behind the bar and, politically, we agreed on nothing. But he never ever patronised anyone and would always ask you, not tell you, to do stuff. In my dysfunctional book, he will always remain the most left-wing manager I've ever had, even though his heroes were Margaret Thatcher and William Hague.

On the other side, I remember once I was working as a receptionist at a Museum somewhere. Not a particularly bad job, but you know, hardly glamorous Mick Jagger material. There comes a self-professed "staunch socialist", "friend of the people", "left-wing" fifty-something senior lecturer I had the misfortune of meeting during my time at University of Birmingham (apparently he's no longer there now, he fucked off to another continent).

I greet, but there's no 'hi', 'hello', 'good morning' in response. Nowt. He looks at me, chuckles and then says "god you've made a career for yourself since university" and he starts laughing and off he goes, walking in with his wife and two mates. My fellow receptionist who was with me looked dumbfounded: "who's that prick?" she asks me. "My old lecturer at Uni. He's a socialist", I answer.


Ben E said...

Hear hear! It's nice to be important but it's more important to be nice.

As an aside, the notion that working in the service industry isn't a 'real' job irks me immensely. I did it for several years, earning less in a week than I now earn in a day. Despite that, it kept the roof over my head so I consider it 'real' enough. I also learnt a great deal about operational management and the way business really works, so in the end it was cheaper than the same time spent in business school. I think everyone should try it - there might be a bit more empathy then.

asquith said...

I make a point of being polite to people who, after all, can't answer back. I just think people who are office holders, powerful, & who actually inflict the harm should be slagged off & the powerless should be last so.

So I have little patience for arguments about collective guilt. It is self-evident to me that random brown people on the streets shouldn't be blamed for what jihadists do, that the rise in antisemitism should be condemned & "arguments" about Israeli government's policies excusing attacks on elderly synagogue-goers can be dismissed out of hand.

My forefathers, who were penniless & illiterate agricultural labourers in colonial times, cannot be blamed for what representatives of the state (the same state whose governors they couldn't vote out as they had no vote) did.

I like to think my politics emerged from the courtesy I was brought up with. My whole working life has been spent as a drone of large, private-sector corporations & they have always been perfectly human & decent.

It is basically about just being decent to people who are generally having a shit time anyway.

Anita said...

Agree with Ben E above.
Working in customer service would teach people empathy and respect. And also, the value of menial jobs where you have to stand for hours and constantly nod to everybody all the time.

Stan Moss said...

A few years ago, I worked behind the till at Safeway. Once I had an old couple of customers going spare at me for exchanging a few sentences with a colleague while at the till.

I myself always said please and thankyou, but after a while you feel a little burnt out, to explain when you have a queue of customers and a lot of them dont even take the time to acknowledge you are human, by returning a smile or greeting, let alone come off their mobile to say thankyou when you give them their change and receipt, you start to feel less human yourself, so you make conversation with a colleague just to break that feeling.

Obviously, for some people that's too much to grasp.