Joan Smith: Rude Britannia – it's service with a scowl

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Four years ago I visited a museum in Belgrade. I was the only visitor, and afterwards was surprised to find several men sitting in the souvenir shop. They were doing nothing but when I wanted to buy postcards, they shook their heads and said it wasn't their job. I left without my postcards, cursing the sullen attitude to members of the public I'd encountered elsewhere in Serbia. It felt like a hangover from the days of Tito and Milosevic, a symptom of the inertia felt by ordinary people under authoritarian regimes.

Now the same phenomenon is visible here. We're become accustomed to appalling levels of service from big companies who employ "agents" or "consultants" with neither the training nor the authority to solve routine problems. I have some sympathy with poorly paid people who work in call centres, but I can't say it makes their inefficiency more bearable.

A woman at British Gas recently offered to "take ownership" of my complaint, but like everyone else I spoke to she didn't ring back. (Maybe she still owns it, taking it out and polishing it in between not returning calls from other customers.) Then a manager at npower asked if he could speak to me "as one human being to another" after his company helped itself to ever-larger quantities of money from my bank account. I cancelled my direct debit, fearing we might otherwise have to meet and "talk through our issues".

But there is a much more worrying consequence of this couldn't-care-less attitude. At airports, the terrorist threat has offered an irresistible opportunity to employees who appear to enjoy barking out orders while security scanners stand unstaffed.

I was once with a friend in an exceptionally long queue at Gatwick airport while a member of the security team harangued us to remove our shoes and coats. "Get your clothes off!" my friend shouted back. "Best naked passenger gets a prize!" Another time, a manager threatened to arrest me because I argued with him over a half-empty tube of hair gel I'd forgotten was in my hand luggage. Friends have had similar tussles over face cream and that well-known weapon of mass destruction, a jar of pesto.

Now the train companies are attempting to make customers feel like criminals. Ten days ago my partner and I arrived at King's Cross for a train to Yorkshire, only to be physically obstructed by five National Express employees who said we couldn't buy tickets on board. My partner has been doing this for 15 years, so I asked where I could find a notice announcing the policy change. They had to admit there weren't any. A supervisor eventually allowed us on to the train, where we bought our tickets as usual. I checked the National Express website: "Tickets are available on board," I read.

Years ago, it used to be state-run industries which had a reputation for inefficiency and sullen service. Now it's the private sector, where big companies get away with offering miserable pay and conditions to employees who have no incentive to deal courteously with anyone. Worse, managers don't have mechanisms to weed out bullies who should never be allowed near members of the public. You don't have to be misanthropic to work in the private sector these days, but clearly it helps.