We were huddled together on one side of the kiosk counter, across from a girl who looked positively annoyed at the request for batteries. Without a word she retrieved the appropriate product, rang them up, and tonelessly quoted the cost, each number pulled from her most unwillingly. My family, who had come to Slovkia from Canada for my wedding, peppered me with questions as we walked away.
“Is she ok?”
“Is she just having a really bad day?”
“Wow. What is her problem?”
While I wasn’t personally acquainted with the girl at the counter, I assured them that she was probably just fine – that’s just the shopping experience in Slovakia.
Every culture has its own expectation of customer service. As Canadians, the attitude and actions of the seller appeared rude. To Slovaks, however, there was nothing unusual. Although customer service can seem superficial, it reflects the personality of a nation, influenced by norms of acceptable behaviour and even history.
In general, North Americans don’t think of most European customer service as being particularly friendly. Slovakia, however, was listed by the World Economic Forum in 2013 as being the seventh most unfriendly country in terms of “attitude of population toward foreign visitors.” In Europe, only Russia and Latvia were considered more unfriendly. In the most recent 2015 Travel and Tourism Competiveness report, among the 28 EU member states Slovakia was ranked 24th for treatment of customers.
One element influencing both expectations and execution of customer service is what we consider to be general polite behaviour to strangers. In Canada, indeed in all of North America, we smile at strangers, strike up small talk, and are friendly to people we don’t know.
This translates to customer service as service with a smile. Even if the customer is rude, the seller must take the high road and be unvaryingly friendly, patient, and accommodating. Companies will refund an unsatisfied customer, whether in the right or wrong, so that the customer is placated and doesn’t spread negative reports.
Slovaks, on the other hand, are quite cold to people they don’t know. It’s hard to tell if their reserve is a Slavic trait or more directly influenced by history. During Socialism, a stranger could be part of the underground Church or a snitch (or both). For simple self preservation, therefore, a Slovak couldn’t show her true colours until she was sure of where the other person stood.
With everybody being so cautious, it was, and to an extent still is, hard to get know new people. Once a Slovak does trust a person, however, they are exceedingly hospitable, friendly, and willing to do anything to help. A visitor is served mounds of food, constantly offered more drink. Once a friend, somebody who previously looked serious and intimidating is suddenly all smiles. Indeed, friends of friends will come to anybody’s aid as long as there is a connection.
I’ll never forget one transformation of a friend of a friend. I was in the hospital, exhausted and overwhelmed trying to figure out life with newborn twins. The head nurse for the day came in, stern and taciturn, as all the nurses seemed to be. I couldn’t help wishing for a friendlier face. One of the obstetricians came on duty, who also happened to be a good friend of ours. On her next visit to my room, the head nurse was all smiles, and turned out to be truly a kind person. She made some slight rearrangements to ensure that I could get a private room, done only because I was the friend of a friend. I always feel slightly guilty when personal connections aquire privileges, but at that point in my sleep deprived state, I was just grateful.
The head nurse’s behaviour was classic Slovak customer service. Slovaks don't have the habit of being friendly to strangers, which is reflected in how they treat the strange customer in the store. Shop assistants aren’t being rude, just normal.
Another factor in customer service is historical influences. In North America, the prevailing attitude has always been that good customer service was a way to attract customers. Especially with the increase in available goods and plethora of similar stores, friendly customer service is a factor in being competitive. Such behaviour is sometimes criticized as being fake, pretending to be friendly for the sake of making a sale, but is still considered a requirement.
During socialism in Slovakia, however, there was little incentive to try to attract more sales. All stores were managed by the state. Goods were few, choice of stores was limited, and the manager of the store was paid the same no matter how much he sold. If a special product came into the store, it was put under the counter only to be sold to family and close friends. My husband’s family always had oranges and bananas at Christmas because an uncle worked in the distribution of fruit and vegetables.
Although the structure of stores changed after the fall of the Communism in 1989, the policy of friendly customer service is still in its infancy. I remember poking around a small corner grocery shop for a few items for the weekend. Newly pregnant, a severe case of morning sickness constantly hovered beneath the service. A whiff of stale air when opening the dairy fridge brought nausea to the forefront, and I dropped my groceries and dashed outside to empty the contents of my stomach into the snow. Feeling rather miserable, I returned inside to purchase the goods. The shop assistant’s face clearly registered her disgust. She waited until I had paid and then said with a peeved air, “Now I have to clean that up,” as if I had been sick on purpose to inconvenience her. I managed to stammer in my broken Slovak that I was expecting, but to no effect. Ever the accommodating Canadian, when I left the store I kicked the offending snow into the gutter so that she didn’t have to clean anything. Already in a state of hormonally-induced emotional sensitivity, I sobbed all the way back home vowing never to return. Looking back though, I’m sure that had she known me personally, she would have been all concern.
Although face-to-face customer service is still very much of a local characteristic, more international businesses are bringing customer service centres to Slovakia. With a well-educated population of low-cost hard workers, Slovakia is ideal for such service and outsourcing centres. Workers are trained in customer service standards for these companies, and quickly adapt to providing top notch quality with all politeness.
As people travel, they bring their cultural expectations of behaviour with them. When Slovaks experience the friendliness of North Americans, they can expect that the person is already a close friend and are confused when the friendship continues on a superficial level. North Americans, on the other hand, expect the customer service they are used to, and can take it as a personal offence if not treated with a smile.
One tourist wrote after a long layover in a Russian airport. “They were not friendly at all. I thought it was very uncomfortable and odd. We didn't see anyone smile. It was just strange.”
Yes, it would be strange to the tourist, but normal to the people living there. Even though nobody smiled, neither was anybody rude. It’s just a different way of interacting with strangers, and completely valid.
After ten years of living in Slovakia, I no longer even register the character of customer service but have come to expect Slovak-type interaction with strangers. In the first few hours of landing in Canada on a recent trip back, I walked into a gas station. “Hi,” greeted the attendant, with a genuinely warm smile. “Can I help you?”
“I’m just looking for the bathroom.” I replied, slightly confused. He pointed me in the right direction, and on my way out wished me a good night. I kept marvelling over how friendly he was. I didn’t even buy anything.
Naomi Huzovicova is a Canadian transplanted to Slovakia. She writes about and photographs traditions, food, and life in Slovakia at Almost Bananas, while cooking strange food and wrangling her children.