This Side of the Pond – April 3

By Sarah Pridgeon

I made a perfectly ordinary telephone call earlier this week, but the result was most unexpected: the gentleman on the other end called me “ma’am.” You may be wondering what could possibly be so exciting about a generic show of politeness, but this sort of thing never happened to me before I turned into an American.

It’s an example of what I believe to be the very best thing about this nation and I’ve been lapping up every experience of it since I landed here. There’s nothing quite like the customer service in America – and that particularly goes for the service in my homeland.

When you enter a café or restaurant in Britain, someone will grudgingly wander over to your table and ask you if there’s something you want to eat. If you’re lucky, they’ll pass your message on to the kitchen and then mosey on over with whatever the chef decides to do with that information. If you’re having a very good day indeed, they might even bring you a knife and fork.

You will then be left to your own devices until your plate is absolutely empty. If you run out of soda, you’ll need to flap your arms around until someone, anyone, notices you – and then you will be required to pay for a new drink.

Whether you get a bread roll with your dinner is fully dependent on how good a mood your waitress is currently in. There are no free refills, no sudden appearances with a refreshing jug of water and certainly no cheery waiter or waitress checking in to see how you’re getting on.

As well as ensuring that most citizens of England are permanently dehydrated, this leads to a nation of people who feel like a nuisance when they decide to eat out. This is the truth behind the rumor that English people never send back food if it’s overcooked or cold – we quite simply wouldn’t dare.

I’m sure it has something to do with the tipping system, which is wildly different in England. A tip is an extra treat for a service professional because the main bulk of their wage is already paid. And because the customer thus has little say over how well their efforts are rewarded, the server isn’t too interested in how happy they are.

But this doesn’t explain why the customer service in our supermarkets and stores is so paltry compared to yours. I still can’t get used to having my groceries packed up neatly for me and carried to my vehicle, because these tasks have always been left to me. Back in England, while you chase your eggs and butter across the conveyor belt in a vain effort to finish before the clerk does, the customer behind you is seething at how much time you’re taking.

Many minutes pass as you struggle to fit every item into one receptacle, because they now charge you 10 cents for each bag as part of the environmentally friendly movement (and you’ll not have remembered to bring any with you). Meanwhile, your clerk won’t lift a finger to help you – that simply isn’t part of the process.

The last time I was in England, my family visited the cinema together. The nearest theater is a multiplex with all manner of refreshments in the foyer, from ice cream and candy to coffee and cakes. My mother decided she would like a half-strength cappuccino to nurse during the movie, but the clerk misheard the order and gave her a double-strength version instead.

Once we’d picked her up from the floor, I offered to return the beverage and request a new one in its place. Having spent a couple of years in this part of the world, I was expecting to be rewarded with a smile and an offer of help. What I actually got was an argument – the barista felt that we should sort out whose fault the error had been before he’d lay a finger on the milk jug.

The courteous attitude I’ve come to so greatly admire isn’t just limited to service people, either. As it seems to pervade the entire community, I’m convinced that tips are not the whole story.

A while ago, I parked my car outside the bank and headed in to deposit a check. As I did so, a young man wearing a letterman jacket sprang from a vehicle at the intersection and quite literally sprinted to reach the door before I did. Why? Because he wanted to open the door for me.

I never did catch that young man’s name but, if you happen to be reading this, please know that you made an Englishwoman very happy. You were a fine example of Stateside breeding and a darned sight more helpful than your British counterpart would have been. Had we been back in the land of my birth, you’d have been running to catch an earlier place in the line.

When we Brits venture forth from the safety of our island, the customer service can be overwhelming to us. I distinctly recall a vacation in the heart of a tourist trap, during which an enthusiastic salesperson followed our every step around the store. Completely unused to the idea of being attended to, my mother and I assumed they thought we were thieves and promptly fled the store.

The same thing happened on my first trip Stateside, when I couldn’t understand why all the sales clerks in New York City were so concerned that I should have a nice day. If someone says that to you in England, you see, they usually mean quite the opposite.

So if you ever witness a European giving a scanty tip to a waitress or dumbfounded in the face of your politeness, I ask that you please forgive us – we know not how we sin. Let it never be taken as a judgment on the people who make this service industry what it is, for I can guarantee that your foreign guest is both mystified and thrilled by all the attention.

Bear with us as we ease in to the idea of another human being caring whether our soup is warm enough or if someone is taking care of our needs. If you give that Brit a little extra time to understand that you’re actually sincere, I know only too well that your efforts will make their whole year.