As Kate Fox says in Watching the English, there is nothing the English dislike more than “making a fuss.” We see evidence of this in the English propensity for dirty looks and harrumphing in incidences of queue jumping, rather than directly confronting the social deviant, and apologizing incessantly when asking anyone in the service industry for the tiniest bit of service, among other things. Why, just moments ago, as I was asking Pat a question about the unfortunate current state of the blog site in a very hushed whisper, I was given the disgruntled throat clear by the elderly man sitting a couple seats to my left here in the Humanities Reading Room in the British Library.
At the British Museum, which attracts a great deal of tourists, you would think the employees would be more accustomed to handling the directness of foreigners, but you would be wrong. I’ve been amassing quite a collection of postcards since I’ve been here in London, and in my opinion the British Museum gift shops offer some of the most attractive options. They are, however, rather pricey at 60p a pop, so I was delighted when I saw a significant amount of postcards available through the 10 for 1 pound deal. I was decidedly less delighted when I noticed that a few of the postcards I had paid full price for were included in the discounted selection. So I sifted through the postcards I had purchased and fished out the ones that were on sale, so that I could take them back to the counter to return them. The saleswoman I spoke to said they didn’t do returns, I then explained the issue to her and she said there was nothing she could do about it, with the faux-polite “so sorry” of course. Being a student on a budget, I was not about to resign to paying 60p for something being sold for 10p so I requested to speak to a manager. The look of complete befuddlement and horror that spread across her face when I didn’t simply sigh and walk away with my over-priced postcards was fantastically English. The manager did arrive, and he corrected the problem, but not without displaying that he was obviously annoyed with me, telling me how complicated of a process he was about to undertake. As other customers queued up behind me at the till, he would sigh and say to them, exasperated “There’s another till ‘round the corner, it is going to be quite awhile.” The whole scene was like something out of a bad sitcom.
This experience was the complete opposite of what would have happened in America, where quality customer service is something many businesses and institutions pride themselves on. The phrase “the customer is always right” is replaced here by something like “even if the customer is unhappy, they’re unlikely to say anything about it, so, all’s well then, carry on.”