Dunbar: Russian frankness preferable to American forced empathy


Blair Dunbar, Assistant Opinion Editor

Upon returning from studying abroad last quarter in Moscow, my first task was to move into my apartment. After a lot of anxiety and stress, I decided to buy my new furniture from Target. Despite the security breach that involved millions of credit and debit cards, Target still seemed like the easiest and cheapest option. Unfortunately, the recent breach has not given the store an incentive to improve their customer service.

Now, I’m not the most savvy when it comes to understanding furniture shipping prices. But when my mother found out Target charged more than half the price of the furniture for shipping, she immediately contacted customer service personnel. It turned out there was no mistake in the shipping prices, and Target refused to let us cancel the order. Even after two of the items’ shipping was delayed and one product was missing a part, we did not receive even a partial reimbursement. At the end of the conversation, the lady “sincerely apologized for the inconvenience” and added customer service was “a high priority.” To this, my mom replied that it certainly wasn’t, otherwise Target would do something to fix the situation.

In reality, I’m sure the woman at the other end of the computer really didn’t care. After all, why would a mid-level Target employee feel bad about my exorbitant shipping costs? She probably knows as much about her company’s products as what appears in Google. But in America, even if you don’t care, you still have to pretend you do.

As we grow up, Americans get used to apologizing when someone steps on their feet, saying everything’s fine when it really isn’t and pretending to empathize with strangers’ problems. This is not something that goes unnoticed by those living in other countries — especially one like Russia, where I spent much of the past four months.

My Russian friend Tatiana’s biggest pet peeve is how often Americans apologize or excuse themselves. “Someone bumps into you, and you apologize. It makes no sense! Stop saying you’re sorry!” she exclaimed to me one day. In Moscow, it definitely took some effort for me to ditch the impulse to apologize as people shoved me on and off Metro train cars. But Russians don’t apologize for trying to get to work or school on time, even if it means pushing people here and there. Russians have a different code of conduct by which they abide, one which includes being more upfront.

I remember one time going out to the movies with Tatiana and one of her friends. I thought it was getting too late, so Tatiana told her friend not to purchase me a ticket. Her friend hadn’t left the ticket counter when he tried to ask for two tickets instead of three, but the cashier wouldn’t let him return one of the tickets. He had said three, and that was that. It was ridiculous, especially by American standards, but she didn’t pretend to care. It was kind of a “sucks to suck” situation.

In a way, Russian customer service is refreshing. It’s refreshing to know that when someone apologizes, he or she is actually sorry. It’s refreshing to not feel any guilt about hating a movie cashier for her ridiculous policies just because she was “so nice about it.” I made great friends with the two women who worked at the local cafe where I bought my coffee every morning, and I knew they genuinely liked me. Otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered taking the time to chat with me every morning.

I think the words of Americans should reflect their actions. If Target really feels guilty about its shipping policies, then the store should make an effort to change them. If not, when a customer complains, customer service representatives should be upfront about the company’s actions, realizing the company might lose a buyer or two.

Maybe everyone should take a moment to stop and think before letting the words “I’m sorry” tumble from their mouths. I’m not saying everyone should start being rude. I just would prefer more frankness over feigned empathy.

Blair Dunbar is a Weinberg junior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].