Tuesday, 24 November 2009

When shouting works!

A couple of incidents lately have left me wondering about the local psyche.

First of all, I had a long conversation with my Russian teacher about the way English people behave. Apparently, in general, we are considered "tricky" to deal with on account of our lack of propensity to say exactly what we mean, because we are always trying to be polite. Turns out that many other nationalities find our pleasant interactions frustrating and baffling and they cannot understand why we don't just spit out what we mean, instead of couching things in gentler terms.

"But if someone is nice to me all the time," she asked, "How can I tell if they are my friend or not? Maybe they are just pretending they like me."

"Well, yes, maybe," I thought, "But surely you would prefer that to someone treating you as if they don't like you?"
I explained to her that one of the things foreigners living here most often complain about is the surly first-contact experiences they have with locals. Having lived in many different countries, I have finally learnt not to take first impressions too much to heart (it took a while). You simply cannot understand where a person is coming from by their first reaction to you, if they do not share the same cultural background as you.  I would much prefer that the norm here was to be smily, happy and helpful, but that is just not the way it works. It may be the case in other countries, notably the US where service with a smile is an oft-repeated mantra, but in the UK that whole idea is a relatively recent concept.

"We don't like to give out our smiles at the start, but then the next time you meet someone, if they like you, you will be able to tell," she enlightened me. And she is right. My general approach everywhere, is to be smiling and courteous, and to persevere even in the face of the grumpiest, most sour-faced bureaucrat as I tempt them to crack their dour expression at least into a twinkle in the eye. But, my goodness, you have to persistent to get results sometimes. If I fail, I generally find it quite funny. Being that grumpy takes a huge amount of concentration! Most of the time, with enough smiling and general pleasantry-making, you can eek out some kind of signal that you are making progress. And the next time you come across that person, you will practically be asked to go and drink vodka with them for a couple of days.

Contrast this with the over-zealous smiling of the Thai nation, for example, where foreigners complain that everyone is so nice all the time, but then they will stab you in the back as soon as look at you - the famous crocodile-smile complaint - you just can't win.

But I digress. I am going to share a still-being-developed theory for social interaction in Central Asia with you. On two occasions recently, I have had cause to get annoyed with people and, forgetting my usual "be nice to all" mantra, I have let rip with a torrent of abuse then stopped speaking, slightly horrified at myself, only to find that the torrent has worked, and the recipient is now a meek and pliable bit of putty in my hands.

The first victim was an officious security guard at the ski resort, who was trying to force my 6-year-old to queue to go through the ticket machine even though she is too young to have a ticket. By queueing with me, she usually loses a ski or two as we struggle to get through the turnstile together, and then we hold up the whole queue and other people shout at us to get a move on, and it is all quite stressful. However, there is a plastic fence located down the side of the line, and she can easily ski up the outside, wait at the end until I get through the ticket barrier and then nip in at the front. Considering there are legions of VIPs who regularly do this anyway, it is not as if she is the only person doing it.

The security guard kept telling her she had to go with me, and could not go through at the top, until I yelled at him in patchy Russian not to be such an idiot, that she did not have a ticket, and it was very difficult for her to come through the machine with me, and honestly, what was the problem with one small young child waiting for her mother on the other side of the turntable, get a life! And immediately, it was no problem. They practically gave her a seat and a cup of tea to enjoy while waiting the next time we came around. Extraordinary.

Second time, was in a shop, where my toddler had put some items on the floor while we were trying on some trousers, and an assistant came round tutting and complaining, "What's all this then," as if we had single-handedly de-stocked all their shelves and were planning to leave everything in disarray.

"Oh get over yourself, I will put them back on a minute," I snarled. Moments later, she re-appeared, smiling ingratiatingly, and offering to search the stock room for anything I required. Amazing.

I have told a few people about these rather weird experiences. And especially among the friends of mine who are working here, my observations are met with sniggers and nods, as if I am the last person on earth to have worked this strange thing out.

It seems that to come across as too friendly at the beginning of an interaction is taken as a sign of weakness, and one should not reveal one's hand too early. Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen is modus operandi for this town. And so the brusque approach which most people reserve for dealing with people round here, is the one to take. They are not, as it turns out, being incredibly rude. Just normal.


  1. When I moved back from the UK to Belgium, I had the same problem. I would literally not get served drinks at bars because I was being too nice. I've decided that on balance I like the British friendliness, but I do hate that you never get an honest opinion. That's why I find it harder to make true friends with Brits. They'll not tell you if your bum looks big in that skirt.

  2. I think that is why i married a Scot. He is fairly straight talking. Once, when i thought my new very expensive hair cut made me look like Jennifer Aniston (at the height of her friends fame), he told me that it was like Darth Vaders helmet and followed me around making Darth breathing noises!

  3. Need baby update for you and sister A.. email Dempseymom

  4. These things are so complicated to work out unless you are born and brought up in a culture, in which case, any other way of doing things seems odd.

  5. Sorry there are no Joe Joe's near you! I wish Trader Joe's did mail order1

  6. So impressed with six-year-old skiing, and how fab you don't have to pay for a ticket for her - until what age? And no more miss-nice-beluga-baby? Trembling for Almaty's surly waitresses and tantrum taxi drivers!