“How are you doing today?” The chirpy voice, so upbeat, so charming, so keen to help, makes every muscle in my body tense up.
“Fine,” I grunt through teeth so gritted I’m amazed any sound escapes.
“Can I get you anything? A bottle of water? An extra towel? How about a drinks menu?”
I breathe deeply. In, out. In, out. Stay calm, don’t shout, it’s not their fault, runs the trusty mantra in my head.
I smile – well, grimace – and squeak, “No, I’m still fine!”
I am lying prostrate on a sun lounger, warm waves lapping the white sand of the pristine beach mere metres from my feet. The sky is blue overhead, the beating sun made bearable by a huge white parasol covering me in pleasant shade. I have a book, a view and a selection of snacks. In short, I should be as relaxed as it’s possible for a person to be.
But this is America, so I’m not.
The US is infamous for its cheesy, overtly friendly customer service. It is quite possibly the antithesis of the British way: loud instead of reserved, brash instead of discreet, overly familiar instead of polite. I can handle it in small doses – at restaurants, in shops, during drinks – but surrounded by it 24/7 at my upmarket Florida hotel is simply too much for the uptight Englishwoman in me.
Please don’t think me churlish – I’m aware problems don’t get much more first-world than, “the staff at my luxury hotel are too attentive (and while I’m at it, these diamond shoes are too tight)”. But the onslaught has been constant since my arrival. I cannot pass from my elegantly appointed room to the pool area without a minimum of three people greeting me. It jumps up to five if I head for the beach. They are there to open the door, there to show me to a lounger, there to bring me towels I didn’t ask for. It wouldn’t be so bad if conversation was limited to a cheery “hello”, but alas, it never ends there.
What grates is the constant litany of questions. “How are you, Ms Coffey?” requires an answer. “I love your accent! Where are you from?” demands interaction. Each of these encounters involves a large dose of, shudder, small talk. Even when I have run the gauntlet and managed to make it onto a sunbed, even when I think it’s safe to finally relax, the assault continues. Staff circulate what feels like every five minutes to ask how I’m doing; if there’s anything else I need. “What I need is to be left in peace!” I want to scream. But that’s not the British way. So I bite my tongue and shake my head for the fiftieth time.
Several times, despite my assertion that, no, I don’t require any water (I brought my own in a flask), I am brought water anyway. There’s overzealous and then there’s a level of keenness bordering on rude.
Moving onto dinner in the hotel restaurant, things go from tense to tenser. I am eating alone, which is fine – I have my book, I have many gorgeous dishes to consume at leisure, I have a beautiful view of the ocean. But again, what should be a relaxing activity becomes fraught with anxiety. I talk more than if I was dining with a friend. I am asked every two minutes or so how my food is by seemingly every employee in the restaurant. And always, always, when I’ve just taken a bite and have to do that embarrassing mumble and nod of the head to indicate that, yes, my dinner is still tasty. Just as it was five minutes ago. And the five minutes before that.
I start to understand what agoraphobics must feel like. I cling to the safety of my room, where I can sit quietly and not have to describe how my day is going thus far. I dread making the dash from the lift to the exit and have to steel myself before broaching the lobby.
At the end of the day, what makes US customer service so hard for a cynical Brit to stomach is its fakery. I know the bellboy isn’t really concerned about how I’m feeling today. I know the towel attendant isn’t really dying to know where I grew up. But, in a country where service workers earn their crust from tips, friendliness is a commodity. It’s all so transactional – a pretend interest in my life in exchange for a few dollars. There’s never going to be a genuine connection in that dynamic.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate good customer service – it’s just that America and I have very different ideas of what that constitutes. In the swankiest London hotels, the staff are nigh-on invisible, waiting at the sidelines until needed. I once walked through the lobby of the Savoy and a waiter sprang out of nowhere to discreetly direct me to the toilets – magically intuiting what I was after – before melting back into the wallpaper. And he didn’t ask how my day was, either. Now that’s good customer service.
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