Don’t Expect Service, With Or Without Smiles

KIEV, Ukraine -- Here’s a joke dating back to the times of the U.S.S.R.: In the metro, a woman says to a man: “Can you take your glasses off. You’re going to tear my stockings.”

Grumpiness of servers, long queues and disregard of clients were characteristic for service in the Soviet Union. This style of service is still alive in Ukraine.

I think only the Japanese can understand this sort of humor among all people from capitalist countries. I have never visited Tokyo, but I read that their metro is just as busy as ours.

To be able to laugh at this joke one has to imagine oneself in the middle of a Kyiv metro carriage in a peak hour when people travel to or from work. People are pressed against one another as if they are fish in a can. There used to be jokes that one could get pregnant in the metro and not know by whom.

Here is another curious phrase from the same sort of humor. A woman says to a man in a metro carriage: “Excuse me! Can you take your hand off!” Then to another man: “Not you, you’re ok.” People had to survive with this sort of service and it was easier to endure with laughter.

Service remains bad in the metro. But it wasn’t just service that was bad, it was the whole philosophy of service back then. Unfortunately, these attitudes persist today.

We ironically called it “unobtrusive Soviet service.” It wasn’t tactful or considerate. It existed for its own sake and could easily survive without the consumer. It didn’t care about the needs of its hypothetical clients in shops or wherever else transaction with the public took place.

Foreign visitors to Ukraine rebelled against such a state of affairs. They did want to accept it, leading to funny situations.

In the early 1990s, I worked in the press service of Narodniy Rukh political party. I worked with American Irene Jarosewich. One day we went to drop off some documents at a Kyiv hotel where parliament members lived.

Afterwards, Irene felt tempted to dine in the hotel’s restaurant. I tried to delicately dissuade her, because I knew what restaurants were like, and suspected that it could not have a happy ending. But she insisted.

We entered the restaurant’s great hall that was completely empty. Not a single visitor was to be seen at any of the tables. The waiters told us they will not serve us because they have a reception in a couple of hours. “We won’t eat for two hours. We’ll eat quickly and go,” she tried to persuade them.

They advised us to talk to the administrator. He was sitting in a corner and writing something. He barely looked at Irene and continued his writing. He shook his head to all her arguments, with his eyes still fixed on the paper. “Soviet boor!” she exclaimed in the end. The administrator did not even so much as move his head to these words.

But it didn’t end there. She poured out her frustration on to that parliament deputy in whose room we had left our coats. He put on his jacket with a parliament member’s badge on it, came down to the restaurant and firmly asked the administrator to feed us.

Such impudence made the administrator stop writing and lift up his astounded eyes. When he saw the parliament member’s badge, he ordered the waiters to feed us. They were all afraid of authorities back then. Irene felt as if she were a World War II Red Army fighter who had set the Soviet flag atop the roof of Berlin’s Reichstag.

At that time we, Soviet citizens, had an ironic attitude to foreigners who hoped to receive the same level of service in our country as they were accustomed to at home. We joked that they did not understand our realities.

They couldn’t understand why a plumber cannot immediately come over to fix a leaky tap. They couldn’t understand why, in a shop with almost empty shelves, a sales assistant can just stand there and chat with her colleague, or even disappear for 10 minutes. They couldn’t understand why someone is being rude to them when you bring them money, i.e., contribute to the profitability of their establishment.

But now I realize that I probably couldn’t explain the logic of Soviet service to the generation that was born after the U.S.S.R. These young people have a hard time believing this sort of thing.

They have become foreigners to the U.S.S.R. They will hardly be able to imagine that if you said to someone then that “I’ll take my money elsewhere,” you would be ridiculed. There were few restaurants; there were queues in them. They didn’t have to care about their reputation and fight for clients.

But Soviet people should thank former Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev for having any service and any service industry at all. Until he came to power in 1960s, there was no such thing. The Soviet people had to be jacks of all trades and service themselves in everything.

They had to repair their own flats, fix their own bathroom equipment and so on. There had been some restaurants. But they were meant for people with high incomes; in other words, for party and state bureaucrats.

It seems that today we can exhale with relief. And even though the service industry is not flawlessly smooth, at least its philosophy is changing. It’s trying to satisfy the client. Former Soviet citizens should be able to rejoice.

However, their joy is sometimes cut short by old habits that die hard. Last summer I visited a small town called Katerynopil in Cherkasy Oblast. When it was time to come back home, I came to the bus station. I had to squeeze myself inside the building between several refrigerators and a wall. It looked like a part of the bus station was rented out to someone selling household appliances, and they left it right in the middle of the passageway.

I came to the cash desk. There was no one there, inside or outside the booth, not even a queue. Suddenly a woman sprang up from her chair and started sprinting. It turned out she was running towards the cash desk. When I realized that, I felt happier -- someone is hurrying to serve me. But I was about to get disappointed.

When she got to her work station, the lady quickly grabbed her ringing cell phone. It was the phone call that made her hurry. She did not want to miss the call. For three or four minutes she talked on the phone, paying no attention whatsoever to me.

Having said goodbye to her interlocutor, she sold me a ticket. I took it without looking. It wasn’t until I got inside the bus that I realized she charged me an extra fee for an early booking that I obviously had not made. This was yet more proof to me that Soviet service is still alive and well.

Source: Kyiv Post