Peter Frase writes a half-hearted defense of rude Soviet waiters, comparing them to the enforced cheerfulness of many contemporary Western waitstaff, and praising Soviet authenticity. Excerpt:
In a system based on wage labor (or its approximation), the choice between company-enforced cheerfulness or authentic resentment is unavoidable. In other words, fake American smiles or sincere Soviet rudeness. The customer service interaction under capitalism can hardly avoid the collision between fearful resentment and self-deluding condescension, of the sort Tim Noah enacts in his opening: “For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me.” Perhaps it’s time to look back with a bit of nostalgia on the surly Communist waiters of yore, whose orientation toward the system was at least transparent.
That’s a false choice, one that assumes waitstaff wants to treat people in a surly, resentful way, and are only prevented from doing so by company rules. Perhaps that is true in some cultures, where people are trained to be asshats by default. There is a third option: a culture where people are basically happy and well-mannered. This is the culture I grew up in. I worked as a clerk in a grocery store as a teenager, and I actually liked my job very much. It was hard work at times, but I enjoyed helping people. And why not?
Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but people around here are generally not nasty or demanding, and their default position is to geniality. Visitors from the northern part of the US have said to me that they assumed the friendliness of waitstaff was a put-on, until they had been here a few days, and realized that no, people really are that nice. Me, I really do hate that over-familiarity you get in restaurants today (“Hi, I’m Todd, and I’ll be your server today”), but as a general matter, why should one assume that if they were more honest, service personnel would be rude and resentful? If that is their default position, then there’s probably something wrong with them, and with the culture that’s taught them to be sullen and spiteful to their neighbor.
Here’s what I appreciate about a culture of more formal manners, which, thank God, you still find in parts of the South, at least: they protect you from your worst self. You might be having a bad, I-hate-the-world day, but if you know you are expected to behave according to a certain code, your subjective feelings are concealed behind your polite behavior. And that same code applies to the people around you who live by the same cultural code. You are taught that your own unhappiness or anger is no excuse for breaking the code and treating others rudely.
If you live by this code, however unnatural it may seem, it may train you to see the world as a more pleasant place than you would have otherwise thought. The other day, I watched my nine-year-old hold the door at a store for an old lady, and smile at her and wish her a good day — this, without being asked by me. This is what his parents and his culture have trained him to do: to put others, especially older people, in front of oneself. For my son, it’s genuine; the manners have formed his morals.
Maybe the problem with a culture in which restaurants have to compel their servers to be polite to customers — and I would draw a distinction between “polite” and “unctuous” — has a lot to do with a corrupt moral disposition within the culture, an orientation towards selfishness and spite.