5am, Domodedovo Airport, Moscow.
British man smiles at Russian queue official.
“I’m terribly sorry. That window appears to be shut. I wonder if it might be possible for me to wait in this line instead? Would that be possible by any chance? I’m terribly sorry. I hope I’m not causing any disruption.”
The queue official looks at him as if he’s just regurgitated something on the floor in front of her.
I’m pretty sure the queue official didn’t speak English, but the British tourist smiled at her and apologized for asking a question, which, as I deduced from her reaction, was clearly a ridiculous way to behave. Contrition and presupposition: one, dominated by a fear of causing offence, the other, dominated by a deep distrust of those dominated by a fear of causing offence. The cultural divide, yet, rather than pointing out our differences, these situations always strike me as moments that highlight how similar we actually are.
I love airports. If there’s one place in the world where you can observe how little separates us as human beings, it’s there. Joy, sadness, relief and anticipation; hard wired and completely intrinsic emotions that unite us all on the deepest level. All that’s required, is the breathy explanations of Attenborough, and you’d realise that for all the superficial differences we see in one another, we’re merely recognising the differences that makes us all the same.
My philosophical foray into ethnography seems to be sent into overdrive every time I travel from Russia to the UK (at the moment, it averages out at every 2 to 3 weeks). It seems to take me a few days to drop the cultural cloak from one country to the next, which allows a brief window to masquerade as a true observer.
Clearly, I come from the tribe of the Down Unders. We don’t find it as pressing to constantly apologise as our British forebears, but we’re naturally happy people and we do smile, allot, some might say we’re not serious enough, so adjusting the corners of ones mouth when in Moscow, needs to be consciously premeditated. The best technique, is to pretend you’re at the funeral of your neighbor’s elderly Aunt and someone’s just whispered something like ” the funeral’s almost over”; you can’t smile, but you’re showing a reserved and maintained level of remorse whilst secretly feeling intensely optimistic . This is always accentuated well with a shortening of the distance between the eye brows, to emphasize seriousness and sincerity.
The need for this expression whilst in public in Russia was explained to me by a Russian friend, who told me that smiling at strangers in the workplace (or just in the street) is seen as a sign that you’re being overfamiliar and not acting in your official capacity. Russians on the whole, she said, need to have a genuine reason for smiling, which, let’s face it, makes it much easier to know where you stand with one another. Essentially, by not smiling in these situations, you are showing respect and sincerity. That said, seven months of a Russian winter can leave you feeling genuinely unhappy, so don’t assume everybody is feeling entirely officious.
There’s a refreshing lack of need for words and unnecessary gratefulness with strangers that comes with this. I relish the ability to buy Metro tickets, simply by saying the number I require and not causing offence. It’s also sensationally satisfying just to use the words yes or no without the need for embellished explanations. Replying with a simple yes to a controversial question like “do you need a bag with that” is almost the linguistic equivalent of bungie jumping; there’s a 3 second delay when you’re bracing yourself for a pert look of dissatisfaction, but, when your cleverly crafted serious expression is reflected by theirs, the official business is professionally concluded and you end up leaving shops feeling strangely emancipated; thrilled with the simplicity of straight communication.
When I was in the UK recently, Clive, an extremely friendly Waitrose delivery man, handed me a card with his name on it and the website for a customer service survey. ” Madam if you log on and tell us what you thought of our service today, you could win 500 Pounds worth of free groceries”. I can only assume there was some upside in it for Clive too and that presumably, he doesn’t whip them out for the cranky customers. Theoretically, even if I wasn’t satisfied, I might be incentivized to say I was. Incentives like these are always based on the assumption that you don’t need to incentivize people to complain, but you do need to give people a nudge to tell you when they’re happy.It got me thinking. Based on this theory, if we value sincerity, then we need to incentivize employees to be friendly, but by paying them to be like that, are we really delivering? Do we really just smile to be polite and convince ourselves that it’s genuine?
My thought is that the answer lies somewhere between the Russian queue official, the British tourist and a line from a John Steinbeck novel Travels with Charley: Discovering America.
Happiness is infectious, but only when it’s sincere, yet, as John Steinbeck said “a sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ”.