The wise and fragrant blogster Susan al Shahri has been talking about customer service in Oman. A subject about which, I'm sure, most of you have a story or ten. Anyway, I started writing a response on her page, but got so carried away I thought I'd better regurgitate the whole thing unedited through my own febrile voice box. Seeing as I wrote a warm, positive life-affirming piece last week like some lily-livered bleeding-heart hippy, it's time to have a bit of a rant and let the spleen back out. But not about politics for a while, because most of you don't give a shit anyway. I'm not quite ready for lame restaurant reviews ("Grated carrots! Yay!"), or complaining about how the maid doesn't know how to programme the washing machine, but a bit of day-today whinging is always a hit. So, here we are. Dedicated to Susan, I'd like to talk a little about the "f*** you" culture that is becoming the hallmark of Omani society - as ever, catching up with the neighbours at its own pace...
Everyone knows that shops, banks, airlines or whatever are in some cultural dark age when it comes to customer relations in Oman. The "can't do" culture is living loud, manifested through people of every background and nationality, united in a common quest for obstruction, obfuscation and sub-mediocrity. What each company wants to do about it is their own problem, and they know it. That most are still failing is something so obvious I can't be bothered to go on about it - plenty of others have. I do have one very surprising (in a positive way) customer experience from Nawras though. Without going into incriminating detail, they made an excellent effort to make me happy. And although the product still basically sucks rear end, they kind of did - mainly just by wanting to. But for every one of those (OK, it is just the one), there are a hundred of vein-throbbing, eyeball-popping, fist-shaking meltdowns I could offer to the case for the prosecution.
Anyway, the point of this isn't just about customer service, it's about manners. The sad thing is that most Omanis (at least most of my friends anyway) have a self-image that tells them Omanis are polite. And in a way it's true - with people they know. No smoking in front of the older generation. Ladies first. Gentle language and gentle manners even in all-male company. No quibbling over the bill (unless it's a fight to be the one who treats the others), no cursing or stealing the last chicken wing, profuse apologies for the slightest perceived shortfall in kindness and camaraderie. My friends are nice, really.
But what is it with people in general? I'm not imagining it: the younger generation are getting less and less polite, and even older ones (especially on the road - a whole other subject featured in a previous rant) seem almost as bad now. Queue-jumping, no more "ladies first that was standard when I first came here ten years ago, and general arrogant disdain for other human beings - no response to your polite greeting, talking on the phone while you're waiting to be served, standing in the way of their elders without care or apology, spitting, swearing, and insulting passers by (attitudes to women are also a major issue) . It makes me furious.
The only way to counter it, though, is to keep doing what the aforementioned Sheikha Susan is doing: keep talking, keep insisting on a response, keep picking people up on their rudeness. Most people, even the most ignorant, still have some sense of shame to which you can eventually appeal. There is a magic screen around rude people, young or old. The car is usually an effective one - it allows them to see another human being as an object, an environmental irritation, rather than a person to be reckoned with. And some, the most talented boneheads, are able to switch off their human interaction radar even in close proximity to their fellow beings. For them, you have to try hard, and it's worth it. Deliberate eye contact and a strong "as-salaamu 3alaikum" to a bunch of young brain donors has an almost magical effect sometimes. The same in the supermarket at the checkout - being 230lbs and male helps, I imagine, but forcing the spotty human ballast to look at you and speak, changes the whole atmosphere. If we all do it, I'm sure they'll develop into better social creatures.
And we'll all get better customer service as a result. Also, I do have some sympathy for the sheer mind-numbing spirit-crushing craptaceousness of the jobs (or lack of jobs) faced by the average Omani school-leaver. First of all, if you haven't got a job, you can read through all the papers and find nothing worthwhile at all. Sure, there are lots of young guys and girls who are just fundamentally lazy, spoiled and/or stupid. They find it hard to get jobs anywhere (except maybe in teaching). But let's not write them all off: if you're an eighteen year old Omani, your family has a borderline poverty income and your parents weren't educated, you've been to a government school that is supposed to have been teaching you English for eleven years and you can't string a sentence together, let alone write one, it that really your fault? Is it really your fault nobody bent the rules or was able to pay to get you into university? Then you look at the situations vacant and everyone wants an Omani national with five years' experience and bilingual. Real meaning: they don't want you at all, they just had to advertise unsuccessfully before employing an Indian. So a lack of motivation in young people might not be entirely without reason.
Also, even if you do get a job as a young Omani, especially as a non-graduate, it can suck pretty badly. Chances are you're being hired as part of a quota rather than a management preference (i.e. they didn't really want you, you're kind of a human tax). You're not going to feel exactly valued and welcome. And a lot of the time, your colleagues are going to resent you, and it's got to have a psychological effect. Imagine your Indian boss won't tell you anything in case you steal his job, your European boss doesn't really understand anything about who you are, and worst of all, your Omani boss has the extraordinary mental agility to believe simultaneously both that you're about to steal his job and that you're mentally retarded - treating you both as a threat and an inferior as a result. And due to the collective incompetence of all of the above, you're asked to implement a customer service policy that seems designed by the Marquis de Sade and Franz Kafka during a long absinthe session, usually as a desperate defence of a product or service over which you have no control, which has been delivered to the paying customer with the grace and inherent value of a face full of monkey vomit.
Sheikha Susan was writing about a particular supermarket - not naming names and I'd normally agree, but I think in this case it was specific to Lulu. I kept wondering from her piece about how you can "wheel a basket", then I remembered that Lulu have this great idea of something that's half way between a cart and a basket: that plastic one with wheels on, which I think is what she was talking about. I'm sure other supermarkets have their problems (security at Carrefour as an example anyone?) so I'm not picking on Lulu and I don't think Susan was aiming to. But as an example of desperately moronic policy affecting standards of customer service in the customer's eye, this isn't a bad one. If you don't know, Lulu's policy is that the plastic wheelie baskets can't leave the store and enter the car park. Therefore, Susan's story of being chased by the Basket Police is one that leaves me with sympathy for both parties, rather than dismayed at the actions of a grim-faced teenaged employee.
Now, to my occasionally-logical mind, it seems that if you have a receptacle designed to be wheeled on the floor because it's too heavy to carry, then making people carry its contents from the checkout is kind of stupid. Sure, the contents of a basket you can carry - you carried them all around the shop for twenty minutes (and maybe stood in the queue for something similar!). And a cart/trolley is for stuff you can't carry, which is why you get to wheel it to your car, unload it, and (if you're not one of the aforementioned arrogant shitmunchers, old as well as young), you put it back rather than leaving it blocking the only empty parking space for a hundred meters because someone less important than you can move it if they want to park.
So why provide an object that's designed to carry your heavy shopping around on wheels, but is lighter and more manageable than the steel cart, and then not allow you to...carry your heavy shopping in it on wheels? Are they so afraid that, unlike those heavy carts, the thieving customers will just load these into their cars and steal them? That would seem to be the only explanation. Considering how far away I've seen the carts end up, I can only assume their fears are justified, which is a pity. Maybe they need to hire some people to be i the car parks and make sure the wheelie baskets don't get stolen. A sad indictment of popular morality indeed. But not letting Sheikha Susan take her bags to the car on wheels is just retarded. And because of it, some poor young Omani dude whose responsibility it was to stop her, not only has to face the wrath of an angry lady, but also help her carry her shopping.
There is no excuse for being rude (like the fat acne-monster in a Shell station who sat there fiddling around with his tray of lighters two minutes before iftar instead of letting me pay for my water, and ignored my greeting three times), and people should have manners even when they're not having a good day. There is a culture of selfishness and aggression that I barely recognise from this country a decade ago. A pervasive attitude that says "f*** you" to anyone and everyone: I'll park in two spaces because the next guy doesn't matter. I'll throw my garbage here, only three feet from the trash can, because someone else will pick it up. I'll jump into this queue because I'm in a hurry and "f*** you" all because I just don't care. It's disgusting, it's eating at the morals of this society, and year by year it's alienating more and more people who want to visit, live, work or invest in this country. Make no mistake, that's a really bad thing. Bad for everyone.
But I think we also need to look at why this is happening, and at the gulf between the young generation's reality and the expectations we all have and had of our lives. That's not peculiar to Oman - a whole disaffected generation exists in a hundred countries, manifested in benefit fraud, petty crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour everywhere from London to Lahore. What strikes me about Oman, not just because I live here but because it's different, is how suddenly this has happened. Maybe it's just economics and demographics - a simple factor of unemployment doubling since the last census while two hundred thousand more, largely unskilled workers, were hired from outside the country. Maybe.
What's wrong with the economy and how it should be fixed are maybe subjects for another article, or several. They're certainly subjects that the new Majlis al Shura needs to get its teeth into next month. But in the mean time, although I'm complaining as much as anyone else about the lack of manners and respect in Omani society as a whole, I think we also need to ask ourselves why the most polite country in the Gulf is developing the same depressing, selfish, nihilist and amoral social environment as the worst inner cities of Europe or America. Maybe, as businessmen, HR managers, colleagues or just members of society, we need to ask what we're doing to make the future better, realistically better, for those who are trying to follow us. Otherwise is might not just be the sullen teenager at the checkout who's an ignorant bastard. Maybe it's us?