How Consumer Politeness Perpetuates Marketplace Mediocrity
I am a peaceful guy. Some would even say that I am conflict-avoidant. At any rate, I don't like trouble. But just the other day, I had a weak moment. Like pretty much every day, the lines at the checkout of my local supermarket here in Toronto were reaching well into the aisles, carts were crashing, kids were crying, cashiers were going crazy. And I, I did the truly unthinkable: I asked the lady at the customer service desk to please open one or two more lines.
Oh, how I wish I hadn't done that. Matrix moment. In a matter of seconds, within a radius of 10 meters, everyone falls silent. People stop putting their items on the belt, dads get their cell phones ready for recording, moms pull their kids away.
What just happened? Canada just happened.
I've participated in the Canadian marketplace as a consumer (and consumer researcher) for many ears. In year one, I learned a lot about the producer side. I experienced Air Canada's formidable hospitality and wondered how Rogers could be in a position to sell me a third-world modem as cutting-edge technology. And indeed, the annual American Express Global Customer Service Barometer research, that is conducted in 11 countries and explores consumer attitudes and preferences about customer service, regularly puts Canada among the lowest performing service economies worldwide.
In second year, I focused more on the consumer side. I wondered why there were still consumers at the Air Canada check-in at Pearson airport willing to subject themselves to such bad service and why pretty much everyone here was and still is with Rogers. Well, that's probably because, as the same study finds, Canadians are among the most polite consumers in the world.
In year three, I attended a dinner party. And in the midst of the usual rite of worshipping that musty Ontario wine my Canadian friends were drinking as if it was the holy blood of Jesus Christ, the penny dropped. Accepting below-standard goods and services, staying in unacceptable contracts, obeying rude service people -- these are popular ways for showcasing one's authentic Canadianness. Failure to do so, in turn, raises suspicions of being un-Canadian, which is almost as bad as being American.
So not the decision of opening only six out of 18 cashier stations during crunch time was the problem. The real problem was that I dared to speak out, no matter what. And so everyone in my immediate vicinity felt called upon to set the record straight.
This reveals one key characteristic of Canadian consumer culture: politeness is not merely a positive trait. It is a moral dictate. Employees are rude, consumers are polite. In the end, nobody is responsible, and so we all comply and play along.
And so did I. Yes, this may seem cowardly to the non-Canadian reader. But believe me, Canadian culture can be like that proverbial Air Canada flight attendant. One look is all it takes for you to be polite and not say anything. That's how markets educate.
Approximately 40 minutes later, I had finally paid and was standing on the movator (Note: a movator is a moving walkway used in Canadian supermarkets to move consumers out of the store in slow motion). But I wasn't going to leave without being schooled one more time. A fellow shopper keenly approached me and asked: "So you must think your time is worth more than ours?"
Actually I don't. But he may be too polite to see that all of the time and money we collectively waste every day, as consumers and workers, to sustain this utterly inefficient market system is going into someone else's pocket.
And that's the real tragedy in my opinion: politeness can work against everyone's best interest. It can make us accepting of substandard, overpriced goods and services to the benefit of mediocre companies. And it can make us believe that silencing complaints from a companion in misfortune is a way to earn the moral (Canadian) high ground.
Clearly, consumption can and should never be the sole problem-solver. But complaining can be an act of patriotism as well. For it might be one way to encourage a better market and society, the kind that gets parents to spend more time with their kids, cashiers to be less overworked, Internet modems to work more reliably, people to be healthier, and wealth to be distributed more fairly.
Isn't that why we're all here?