American travelers in the Arab world are often surprised by the lack of a customer service mentality in the private sector. The connecting airplane in Tripoli isn’t at the gate, and rather than giving an explanation, the staff all leave the area so as to avoid dealing with irate customers. The plumber in Cairo shows up 4 hours later than the appointed time, with no apology, looks for five seconds at the leaky pipe and announces that the wrench he needs is at home and he will be back next week if he can. The cheery merchant in the Damascus souk happily pawns off a 10 year old piece of junk as a treasure from the 5th dynasty of Iscamyoo. And so on.
Yet if I were lost and alone and hungry and tired, I don’t know if there is any place on earth that I would rather be, because the Arab World is a place where I could reasonably expect a stranger to recognize my plight, take me into his home for dinner with his family, let me explain my problem, and then call his cousin Ahmed to give me a ride to my hotel on his motorcycle. A Canadian friend of mine who has traveled extensively in Iran described to me a similar hospitality ethos in Persian culture (Haven’t been): “Iran is a place where if you walk up to a street demonstrator who is holding up a sign reading “death to the west” and ask for directions to a particular restaurant, you may well get the response “Oh, that place isn’t very good. And anyway, I want you to meet my family and have a proper Iranian dinner. I’ll be done here in a sec, as soon as the cameras leave – do you mind if we walk, it’s only a few blocks, but I can get us a ride, if you are tired….”
Customer service is infinitely better across the board in the U.S., we are a “customer is always right” society. Even McDonalds, with its low wages, provides fairly good customer service. Yet how often do Americans invite strangers over to dinner? And do we suppress hospitality with our bias toward customer service? (I remember an Iraqi colleague chastising me for wanting to give money to the man who drove us around in his car over the period of a week as we worked on some health care projects. My colleague said “We will buy a gift for his children, to give money would mean that he was just a worker and not our friend”).
Sociologists who take a functional view of culture would argue that hospitality values and customer service values are in essential conflict. In the functional explanatory framework, the voluntary sector offers things people need because the private sector does not fill the same need. Once the private sector develops a service (e.g., many good restaurants with fine food, attentive service, and sparkly rest rooms), the voluntary sector begins decreasing provision of the same thing (e.g., the voluntary hospitality of dinner with a family in the home). I would like to think though that it is possible for a culture to maintain outstanding professionally provided customer service, while at the same time nurturing a tradition of voluntary hospitality.
In small towns for example, good service in a family-owned hardware store or bank is both private sector customer service and voluntary hospitality, to the extent that one’s customers are also one’s neighbors and friends. The traditional English public house is built on the same model. But I strain for examples to contradict the functionalists, which may mean the norm is more like Starbucks, namely excellent customer service without personal hospitality.
The experiment on functional sociology that one could never run but would be fascinating is this: When Starbucks comes to town for the first time, does the likelihood that residents will invite a new neighbor over for a cuppa joe go down? And does the neighbor’s interest in such an invitation drop as well?