‘Sir’ As an Expletive, as in ‘Service’

Gershom Gorenberg

Though I am thoroughly anti-messianic, I did briefly consider the possibility last week that I was seeing signs of redemption: Marty Peretz liked  a column by Roger Cohen, and I mostly liked it too.

However, Peretz’s comment that the column is about diarrhea strikes me as akin to someone asserting that Pride and Prejudice is about ballroom dancing: missing the point, most grievously. So I guess the messiah is not coming.

Cohen’s column is about a man arrested because he pushed his way past a flight attendant to use the business-class lavatory. This was on Delta Airlines. A refreshment cart was blocking the economy class facility, and the attendants would neither move it nor allow him to venture into the territory of his betters to avoid mortal shame. He imagines them telling him:

“You’ll have to wait, Sir. We’re doing the drinks and tiny pack of peanuts service.”

Cohen comments, masterfully,

The intonation of that “Sir” will be familiar to many of you, a tone peculiar to American airline companies, one in which resentment, superiority, fear, contempt and impatience are coiled into a venomous parody of politeness — a three-letter expletive really — that stands the notion of service on its head and tells the whole dismal story of U.S. carriers in recent years.

The subjects of this column are shame, and the reduction of workers to automatons. If I have any criticism of Cohen, it’s that he engages in a bit of shaming the unhappy passenger himself, and that he limits his criticism to airlines. Properly edited, his sentence should have read:

The intonation of that “Sir” will be familiar to many of you, a tone peculiar to American  companies, one in which resentment, superiority, fear, contempt and impatience are coiled into a venomous parody of politenes…

Returning on occasion to my native land, I am regularly struck by the absolute inability of corporate employees to do anything but what the employee manual says – or put differently, their terror of thinking for themselves. The terror is understandable; violating sacred corporate policy could leave them without a job and without health insurance. I’ve found that explaining my frustration to American relatives isn’t always easy. They live in only one culture, which is therefore as invisible as water is to a fish.

Now where I live, workers normally have discretion. For instance, I once had to fly from Israel to Los Angeles, where my mother was dying. I arrived at the airport with a little rolling suitcase to take as carry-on, and with my laptop bag. At check-in, the El Al clerk told me that my suitcase weighed 5 kilos too much for carry-on. I explained to her why I did not want to spend an hour at the airport picking up a checked bag. She took a breath and told me to take my suitcase with me, and to shift some stuff to the laptop bag.

She could do this because she had not quite replaced her own neurons with the company rules. I appreciated it a lot. A lot more than I care about whether someone in a store tells me to have a nice day. I appreciated it not only because I could get to the hospital quicker, but because I was talking to a person, and she was talking to a person.

One of the best things about Israel is that the rules aren’t always the rules. This is also, definitely, one of the worst things about Israel. The precise opposite applies to the United States, which is why my native land feels so foreign to me.

If you can’t understand how the best thing about people could be the worst thing about them, you’ll do fine in symbolic logic, which is a terrible shame. Literature is sometimes a cure. Start, say, with Pride and Prejudice.

9 thoughts on “‘Sir’ As an Expletive, as in ‘Service’”

  1. Oh yes, you speak the truth. In the US, every employee is a manager or assistant manager etc., but nobody has any authority (or will take it) to do anything. You didn’t mention the possible reason that refusing to allow minor things can give a boost to minor functionaries who perceive little ability to determine their on-the-job actions, so they rush to restrict when they are backed by a rule. Call it the “drone syndrome”

    An allied problem, though it would appear to be the inverse, is the “I’m helpless” syndrome.

    The local J.P. Morgan bank is a trash dump with litter blowing around the property – plastic bags, pop bottles, pop cans. One day, in disgust, I took five minutes to fill both hands with this junk (including a nice big deformed cardboard box), walked in and presented myself to the “manager”. The fault is with a company that is supposed to pick up the stuff but hasn’t, she said. Her hands are clean (literally).

    Since I’ve lived nearby for 7 years and never seen the place free of junk, I put little weight in this lame excuse. My suspicion is the manager has not been told to get rid of the litter by her superiors and so does nothing. If I worked there as the most menial employee, I would do it myself out of self-respect if nothing else.

    Next step – my own YouTube video of the mess. Let modern technology do its thing, I say, to urge weak humanity along.

  2. Why impugn a nation based on your own experience? On a recent flight from the USA back to Israel, a Delta agent similarly suggested shifting some weight from one bag to my carry-on… w a goal to spare me overweight charges. And just yesterday, an Israeli company clerk cited jot and tittle an inane policy from a manual that made no sense and that required no loss of job security to “work around.” We all have stories to support any theory and bias about any nation, culture, and so on. From your keyboard, I am accustomed to finding serious scholarship and insight.

  3. I’m very surprised that you do not understand that you are in fact, talking about 2 different subjects: SAFETY and CUSTOMER SERVICE. You’re El Al bag situation was an example of CUSTOMER SERVICE. It happens at all airlines-staff is sometimes allowed to make a personal decision based on the circumstance at the time.
    SAFETY-is another matter (and El Al is the BEST at this-had Joe C tried that on their airline he would’ve been black and blue and barely breathing :), SAFETY can NOT be COMPROMISED. The Joe C. lavatory incident had nothing to do w/ Class of Service, CUSTOMER SERVICE or $ $. It was about SAFETY.
    U.S. Flight Attendants are directed by the TSA to PROTECT the Cock Pit- which happens to be next to the First Class Lavatory. Joe C. did not have to BULL RUSH the front of the airplane and frighten everyone – he could’ve gone to the back, quickly explained his dire need to the F/A’s and they could’ve let him by, to the aft/back Lavatories.

  4. Great article, especially the penultimate paragraph. Pace one of the commenters above, of course you can almost always generalize about cultural differences, unless you’ve decided to blind yourself by political correctness. For what it’s worth, Mr. Gorenberg’s generalizations fit own my experience in Israel and America as well.

    In a nutshell: Americans love to follow the rules but hate to obey orders; Israelis hate to follow the rules but love to obey orders.

  5. So sorry that in late-night blogging I didn’t provide a full bibliography. The classic scholarly work underlying this discussion is Ish Hayashar Be’einav (Everyman Whatsoever Is Right in His Own Eyes: Illegalism in Israeli Society), by the late, and greatly missed, political scientist Ehud Sprinzak.

    Sprinzak set out to explain the negative side of the rules not being the rules. I gave a brief description of his historical and sociological argument here.

    Sprinzak was right that low regard for rules translates into a political culture of “illegalism,” in which both common citizens and politicians ignore the rule of law.

    Since I’ve decried illegalism often enough, it’s only fair that I point out the flip side: believing that you have some discretion in following and applying rules can humanize otherwise rigid institutions.

    Sprinzak doesn’t touch on some other reasons that Israelis are more likely to see themselves as having discretion. In a small country, with very extensive social networks, people are more likely to relate to others informally, as members of extended family. The Israeli stress on group over individual increases this sense of connection. It’s possible that the independence of relatively low-level commanders in the army also carries over into civilian institutions.

    Of course, it’s possible to find counter-examples. Social patterns aren’t laws of physics. I suspect that Israeli companies are becoming more rigid – due to acquisition by foreign firms, training of executives abroad, and introduction of rigid computer systems. The change might be easier to tolerate if it came with more respect for the law on the part of government officials.

  6. I have been hooked on Cohen’s articles so I was delighted to read this philosophical commentry on his recent whimsical digression. As somone who has spent his whole life between the south England and Ireland (and Cork at that) I totally undertsand.

    Beautiful article–and the nod to Austen too; blogging poetry.

  7. I’ve also met Israeli employees who won’t make a minor decision about one of my pet peeves: music volume. I actually had a Fox cashier refuse to lower the deafening volume because “I can’t be turning it up or down according to every customer who comes in”. Oooooh. So thaaaaaat’s it. Hadn’t thought of that. That would be suuuuuuuch a nuisance. Like you’d have masses of customers complaining that the music is NOT LOUD ENOUGH. I get it. When I called Reception at the Dan Eilat at 11 p.m. to complain about loud music, the clerk lamely explained, “It’s not us. It comes from the *tayelet* [promenade]”. Oh. Really? Well, have you considered approaching the merchants and asking for their cooperation in keeping the tourists happy and their stay in Eilat pleasant? Which is also their livelihood, too? Duh. Get your butt out there, find out where it’s coming from, and tell ’em to turn it off because your guests (who are also their clientele, duh) are complaining!!!

  8. Seattle must be one of the exceptions. Most everyone I meet here is nice and helpful. Talkative (where are those earplugs again?) but pleasant enough.

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