If you’re an American (if you’re not, read on, you’ll see what I’m getting at) who’s traveled overseas and spent any time in a major fast food chain (I’m guilty on occasion), you may have noticed a few subtle differences from fast food restaurants in America.
First, there are very few if any visible or accessible waste bins. Second, trays with empty wrappers, cups and other trash are usually left behind at a few scattered tabletops by customers. There’s probably an employee making the rounds to clear the dining room debris every quarter of an hour or so.
What you certainly won’t see are trays neatly stacked on top of trash bins labeled “Please Place Trays Here”. In part for this very reason, I find it somewhat amusing to visit fast food restaurants once-in-a-while when I’m traveling overseas to see the reaction of guests and employees at my bizarre Western behavior.
Sometimes, I’m left looking like a bit of a fool wandering around the restaurant searching for a nonexistent waste bin with a tray full of trash while employees scramble to figure out what to do with the pasty white foreigner playing janitor. “Sir, I’ll take that,” says one of the employees coming to my rescue after a failed attempt to find the trash receptacle.
If I’m able to complete my mission and dispose of my own garbage without a hitch, I usually leave the restaurant feeling a little better about myself despite having committed a dietary sin. I feel curious eyes on my back as I press the door open and breeze out of the restaurant.
Human see, human do
My hope is that people will see my behavior and try to copy it, as so much other Western behavior is copied without much thought. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll help in the smallest way to resurrect the image of the Ugly American that others before me have earned through less-appealing behavior.
This isn’t just about fast food restaurants, though, this is about an economic ecosystem as a whole. In the U.S. (and perhaps other countries), we treat businesses and their employees like we would our neighbors: with kindness and deference. Like borrowing a cup of sugar or some milk from a neighbor, we don’t walk onto someone’s property and start making demands, even if it’s the property of an entrepreneur. We know businesses aren’t run by slaves and that starting one is a voluntary and usually very brave endeavor. If you think it’s easy to start a business, you should try—it’s not.
Typically, unless employees are too busy for small talk, we might begin a transaction with a courteous welfare check or cheery greeting. “Hi, how are you?” will usually suffice. Or perhaps, “It’s a beautiful day today isn’t it?” if you’re feeling extra chipper. Under no circumstances, though, is it appropriate to say, “Give me this and that and make it fast.” That’s a good way to earn a reputation around town as a certified jerk.
The impolite status quo
Yet that is how most business transactions take place around the world, and it makes the interaction between customer and employee a rather unpleasant experience much of the time. In restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and stationary shops, requests for service are typically barked out like orders from a military commander to his subordinates. It is as if a refusal to do as requested would result in some kind of punishment. Hearing a “please” or a “thank you” preceding or following a demand for something someone wants to purchase is rare, even from normally polite people.
Employees, worn down and hardened by inhuman interactions with fellow humans, respond in kind with a lethargic and blasé demeanor that makes you want to spend as little time in the establishment as possible. Less money is spent because money spent unhappily is unusually money spent frugally.
The company earns less, the employee is not rewarded because she lacks a money-making positive attitude, and the cycle repeats. In her defense, even if she lightened up a bit and tried to treat customers like friends and neighbors, she’d probably get little more than a cold shoulder in return. In these places, kindness is seldom rewarded and rudeness is seldom rebuked.
In this same strange world of otherwise polite and caring people treating businesses and the people who run them with disdain, formal complaints are filed with government bureaus for such ordinary actions as raising prices to match demand or increasing cost of business. Newspapers publish reports of “unscrupulous” traders who dare to raise the price of products beyond what the public deems reasonable. Rather than vote with their feet, people take to government sanctions or public scoldings. They demand a product be provided to them at a price they set.
What lies behind this behavior I’m not entirely sure. Rampant abuses from government-connected businesses? Perhaps. Cultural differences about how to treat those who serve us? My heart tells me no.
Whatever the reason, though, I think most of the world could benefit from having a little more respect for entrepreneurs. To recognize that the businesses that bring us all the things we love are not conscripted servants but volunteers. That at any moment, the things we love to buy could disappear if deprived of the mutual benefits exchanged daily between a business and its customers—not all of which are monetary in nature. That behind cashier’s counters and shiny silver-colored name badges are actual human beings who want the same things in life as you: respect, appreciation, kindness.
The Please and Thank You Economy is much more enjoyable. And it just so happens to be more efficient, innovative, and prone to rapid growth, too. It’s a simple idea, really. One born out of what some have called the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Test it out for yourself, observe it in action. I think you’ll find it’s an idea worth spreading.
How will you spread it?