Are Voluntary Hospitality and Customer Service in Conflict?

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 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?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “Are Voluntary Hospitality and Customer Service in Conflict?”

  1. Can we really draw similar correlations in the U.S. since we're programmed from childhood to be wary of strangers? I see the two acts as entirely separate behaviors. Hospitality is a gift; human to human. Customer service is a purely selfish strategy for maximizing sales.

    Poor Americans! We jostle about in the nation of fear; personal safety, health, other humans, etc. I wonder if most Americans under the age of 40 have actually experienced true hospitality. And "commercial hospitality" (formerly known as customer service) is so shallow and obvious in its phoniness and intent to process high volumes of business that I wonder that people tolerate such interactions on a daily basis.

    As for your last question, I would suspect that the new neighbor is relieved to meet in a neutral and public location which has consistently good coffee.

  2. I always thought that societies in particularly hostile environments were those most likely to emphasize hospitality to strangers. If you don't "pity the stranger who stands at your gate," and you live in the desert, the stranger is likely to die. Maybe this is why hospitality is so important in Arab cultures (and see the first few verses of Genesis 18).

    This seems to fit with your idea. If there's a hotel a few blocks away then there's no great obligation to provide food and lodging to someone who knocks at your door.

  3. The risk is in overinterpreting such hospitality which may be just as ritualized as a McDonald's greeting. Remember Captain Cook!

  4. This issue was treated very nicely in "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely.

    Another book turning over this question extensively is "Systems of Survival" by Jane Jacobs.

  5. Beth: I'm not sure I agree that "commercial hospitality" is less genuine than hospitality in the home. The commercial venue provides the opportunity to be a host in a more controled environment. You wouldn't be likely to open your home to any person who happened along. Do that enough times and you are apt to find a gun pointed at you. But in a public space you can meet anyone in relative safety and still preserve your private space for your intimate family and friends.

    During my years running a retail store I felt I had a grand social life at my shop.

  6. One of my early 'cultural education' experiences when I first came to the US (having been raised in India and Nigeria) was when I was invited to dinner by the friends of a (professional) couple I had known in Nigeria. I was shocked that not only were we to have dinner in a Chinese restaurant, but that at the end of dinner I was expected to pony up my share of the tab.

    In effect, I was invited to pay to spend a couple of hours chatting with some people. They were fine people and we had a great conversation; however my expectations about 'dinner invitations' were quickly recalibrated and I learned about 'going Dutch'.

    Growing up, if someone invited you to dinner it always meant dinner at their house, eating food prepared by them (or their servants). You returned the favor by inviting them to your house for dinner. And so on. This 'Dutch' thing was very strange.

  7. Immigrant — That is not proper behavior in the US. Those "hosts" were breaking a core rule of etiquette. The one who hosts an eating event provides the consumables (or pays for the meal, if it is in a restaurant). This rule is frequently violated, but it is a firm etiquette rule, nonetheless.

    Your middle paragraph is the perfect explanation of why this rule is the rule. Hosting means hosting, period. It is a serious violation to "invite" someone to a meal, and then expect them to pay their own way.

    You are correct, this was not an "invitation" at all.

    Regarding the other element that shocked you — being hosted in a restaurant:

    It is *acceptable* to host guests for a meal in a restaurant. However, in the view of etiquette, restaurant service, no matter how fine or expensive, is always inferior to being a guest for a meal in someone's own home. The most humble home-offered meal is considered superior in the eyes of etiquette to the finest restaurant. Period.

    If anyone in this country tells you differently, you are being told wrong. This is on the authority of Judith Martin, Amy Vanderbilt, Emily Post, and all the other great American etiquette writers.

  8. PS I apologize, as an American, that, at the hands of my fellow citizens, you received this misinformation and mal-introduction to proper American behavior.

    I beg you not to draw conclusions about what is proper in the USA. There are people here who uphold the correct standards, although at times it seems they are a diminishing population.

    In any case, I hope you receive a proper version of hospitality soon.

  9. I don´t see that the arrival of Starbucks changes the supply of real coffee in any way.

  10. Betsy, thanks for your post. I should have added that was almost 30 years ago, and I have since met many people who conform to the norms you describe. In fact, my early experience is the exception, not the norm.

    No apologies necessary. I love the generosity and hospitality of individuals in this country, and admire and respect the openness and acceptance of change (rabid Right notwithstanding) that has made the US what it is. So much so, I too am now another droplet in the great melting pot.

  11. Being hospitable and delivering great customer service go hand in hand. That's true whether it's the super-friendly, always smiling worker at Costco, the owner of the local bistro, or the bus driver who always greets his patrons with a smile and welcoming words. It's also an American tradition that you'll find in every region of the country. Not with everyone, mind you, but you will always be able to find people who enjoy being hospitable, even while working for someone else. The impulse towards hospitality isn't confined to the home.

  12. Betsy,

    I generally agree with everything you said, but I find the way you said it highly arrogant and somewhat offensive. It is not your place to define "proper" etiquette anymore than to tell me what the one true religion is. It is not a provable fact but a matter of opinion and personal judgment. All the people you cited are just self-appointed judges. They may have good suggestions but they do not have any inherent legitimacy. If you want to talk about etiquette, you should identify the guidelines as your personal opinion, or the "Post school of etiquette", or whatever, not just "proper etiquette".

  13. Oh, no, I did not define it. I hope I would never attempt that. You are correct; it is certainly not my place to define etiquette, and I do not; I defer utterly to the etiquette that is in place.

    If we each go defining it for ourselves, as you suggest, then we are in big trouble, and everyone will constantly being giving offense, for everyone's definition of what is offensive (rude) will be different. That way lies chaos.

    I will be the first to say that etiquette is most certainly NOT a matter of personal opinion. My personal opinion on etiquette matters not at all!

  14. Bestsy/Immigrant, while I suppose it has been 30 years and bygones can be bygones, it really depends on if the colleague said "welcome to America, let me and my wife take you to dinner" or if they said "want to go out to dinner and catch up?"

    Also, the "conform, damnit, conform" post wins for unintentionally funny.

    In a broader sense of this post, while the Muslim world has religious dictates regarding hospitality, I'd be curious to know about other cultures that both lack America's customer service ethos and a Muslim-like requirement to care for strangers.

    Also, I'd expect the sharing/caring ethos was more prevalent in frontier America; once the frontier closed the ethos followed with it. It then turned into signs that "trespassers will be shot."

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