'Are you OK, there?' [B1/B2]

The customer service culture in the UK is something we Brits love to hate. The sickly sweet, corporate scripts that spotty teenagers spit at you from behind the glossy counters; the insincere enquiries into whether you’re enjoying that 10 quid microwaved lasagne; being pounced upon before your second foot has followed you into the clothes shop, with a coloured-haired metrosexual asking you, “Are you OK, there?” What me? Here? I’m great, and I’ll only be here for as long as it takes you to get out of my way!

The perfect, regional-accent-free voice booms: ‘Cashier number 4 please’. You bleat and move down the immaculate winding queue, waiting to be told which number to go to, it’s just a clothes shop, it’s not necessary. “Hello, just the one…?” says the black-haired, white-faced 16-year-old behind the counter. I look around, and ask, person or t-shirt? I get an awkward smile, she’s not had sarcasm training yet I assume. “Do you have a ClothesCard?” No, sorry (I don’t know, we always apologise), “Would you like one, you can get 10% off all purchases including this one?” It’s just a 5-pound T-shirt, I’ll be fine. “Would you like a bag today?” Well, it would be useful, I mean, if I chose to have it another day how would that even work? “Enjoy the rest of your day, bye.” You too, I say, knowing damn well she won’t.

It’s what we were brought up on, and kind of expect; heartless faux empathy delivered with all the finesse and skill of a scripted reality TV show star. They’ll always try to sell you more, to squeeze a few more quid from you; rain protector with your trainers, muffins with your caffe latte, extra minutes or internet with your phone. Bigger, better, more expensive… go on, you deserve it.

Yes, it’s annoying, it’s predictable and it keeps the money flowing for the big corps, but it does have a plus side. If I buy a mobile phone, TV, tablet or anything else for that matter, and within 14 days I decide I just don’t like or want it, I simply take it back and the money will be back in my account before I turn to leave. If there’s something wrong with it, they’ll change it in an instant, just a couple of minutes between seeing my miserable face and them presenting me with a freshly wrapped, brand-new replacement. I can take an empty food packet back to a supermarket and get a ‘refund and replace’, meaning your money back and another identical item, with as little an explanation as ‘it tasted a bit off’.

All of this is very convenient, no doubt about it. So why is it that here, in Estonia, the way things are done fits much better with me, I may leave a shop feeling utterly underserved, but I never feel cheated, played or manipulated.

I was once in a phone shop here with a silly girly name, taking back a tablet which had developed a problem. My first question being, do you have any more in stock? The guy behind the pure white counter, dressed in bright orange, looked at me strangely; why would that even be a question, he must have been thinking. “We will send it to the service centre for two weeks, to be looked at, they will tell us what is wrong with it,” he snapped. It’s the ROM, I said, it needs flashing as there’s a boot failure. “We need them to tell us that.” Don’t you trust me? “Customers lie sometimes.” Of course they do, but the proportion that does won’t make much of a dent in your revenues, why should I pay for that, I want a new one today, I need it for work! “It’s not possible, this is Estonia,” he said, now clearly annoyed. And so it was.

Now I’ve lived here for over three years, and have many Estonian friends, I understand, but I think you all deserve better than that. Nobody wants to see the complete commercialisation of everyday life, just subtle changes to the way the people who are giving these guys money (us) should be treated, that’s the simple fact. It may just have been a culture shock to this delicate Brit, used to having shop assistants panic at the very threat of me going elsewhere, who if they think you’re not happy will not only change the bloody tablet but give you a free set of headphones so you don’t tell anyone else they’re crap.

It’s a small price to pay. Because the Estonian character that I feel at home with, and has kept my family and I here, is the reason that this is so: you just don’t give a shit, and I LOVE that, I bloody love it! Having a break? You’re the only person working? No problem! - ‘Back in ten minutes!’. In the UK corporate empires would fall for this stuff, heads would roll, and retired people would be kept busy until their dying days writing strongly worded letters: “Can you believe it, the young lady had the audacity to close the shop, a National chain I might add, whilst she went to the toilet, had a cigarette or worse (?). What is this country coming to!” they’d cry,

One day there will be more of a drive to wring a few extra drops of cash from the public here in Estonia, but for now, we can enjoy the lull. The days when the ‘purple’ phone company tells you to stick with the cheaper 50mbs internet, “because you probably won’t use the faster one much,” or the large estate agents who, after three weeks of trying to get a call back from a saleswoman about a new-build, says, ”maybe someone will call you next week?” Maybe they will? They didn’t.

From the electrical stores who send you to their competitors, to the restaurants who tell you there are no tables when they have one person occupying each table of four they have; the DIY stores that close ten minutes before the advertised time, the homeware stores that throw you out because your child has an ice cream (really!), and the supermarket workers that shout at you in Russian for opening the chocolate bar before you pay (so your kids don’t scream the place down).

All these things, and yet I wouldn’t change it for the world. The reason? Because something happens here that doesn’t happen in the UK, with all of its customer awareness and the rest of it. Here, when I walk into a shop, I’m greeted with a “Tere,” and a smile*, and in today’s impersonal world, where technology is ripping personal human relationships apart and changing the very fabric of our social interactions, a sincere greeting when you walk into a shop, restaurant or anywhere else is exactly what we all need.

*OK, I made that smile bit up.