If you have ever been in a local restaurant or store here in Russia, you might have noticed something missing: customer service. No matter where you go, you’ll see grim faces (if they even bother to look up) and the feeling that you, the customer, are interrupting something. Some people blame this on the youth of capitalism here. But I don’t buy that. The generation currently working in the service industry barely remembers the nineties, much less socialism. And any visit to a Russian McDonald’s will show you that western-style service can be taught.
I don’t think the lack of western customer service was brought about by specific historical forces like Communism. From what I understand, it’s just traditional. The Russian brand of customer service is a reflection of deeply held values in the society, and we foreigners tend to interpret it as a bad attitude. Even in my icy, flinty hometown in Massachusetts, salespeople smile and interact with customers using lots of exclamation points: “Hi! Welcome to Macy’s! Let me know if there’s anything I can help you find today!” They’re almost psychotically thrilled to see you.
Not in Russia. Melancholy pervades the Russian service industry. Faces glower at you from behind desks, counters, and shelves. No one expresses a doglike joy when you walk into their establishment. But this is not a mistake, an oversight, or a lack of understanding. It is the expression of an important cultural fact: life is hard. Smiles and exclamation points won’t get you anywhere in Russia. Suffering is where it’s at. This goes back a long way. Suffering is a huge part of the Orthodox faith. It’s how you get closer to God. It’s how your soul is cleansed. It’s how Raskolnikov (and Dostoevsky, for that matter) found God.
In contemporary, secular Russia, the cult of suffering is no less prevalent. Every time I use a 500 ruble note to pay for a 300-odd ruble purchase, the cashier rummages around in her change drawer and huffs, “господи-боже-мой” (literally: “lord-my-god,” but the phrase is such a rote incantation that the English doesn’t do it justice). Women especially bond over complaints. I’ve walked in on lunch conversations made up exclusively of complaints. It becomes a game of one-upsmanship, where each participant offers a complaint even worse than the one just before. In fact, the complaining matriarch has become such a commonplace that a recent best-seller (Pavel Sanaev’s “Bury Me Behind the Molding”) features such a caricature as its main attraction. Russians recognize it as hyperbole, but nonetheless find it endearing. So it’s really no wonder that scowls are more common tha n smiles. They fit better with the culture.
The bubbly optimism of western salespeople would indeed seem ridiculous here. People would take it as a sign of insanity. They certainly wouldn’t give you credit for the hard life you’ve been leading. And outside of the general grimness in attitude, the service industry does make an effort in certain areas. Even if your food in restaurants doesn’t come quick or with a smile, there’s one thing servers always attend to. They will always take away your plates and glasses as soon as you’ve eaten the last bite. Your cleared plates, used napkins, and empty glasses will fly off the table before you even see the server swooping from her perch near the bar. Sometimes you’re not even done yet. This easily confuses foreigners (especially students on a budget) who feel cheated out of that last sip of beer, or who were still using that napkin, or who wanted that sauce. But this annoyance is actually good service, just from a different cultural perspective.
According to Russian tradition you can’t put an empty bottle back on the table. This is because an empty bottle is a symbol of scarcity, and a Russian table should always be bountiful. So you have to put the empty bottle down on the floor, or back in the kitchen, or right in the trash bin. Any empty receptacle is a taboo. And it’s the same thing in restaurants. If that plate of salad stays on the table one second too long, you might never again eat at the table of plenty. Those flatware-swiping servers are really just looking out for your future.
So, yes, the service looks bad to the American eye. We don’t see the smiles and hear the chipper exclamations we’re used to. And we miss feeling like every sales person is happy to see us. But Russian service, for the most part, is not for foreigners. It’s for Russians. And these, perhaps, are the things that matter most to Russians. So maybe Russian customer service is doing great. For Russia.