Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Arrogance or humility?

Frustration here in India tips dangerously sometimes into rage, and it's not always obvious why. Today, I discovered that the fee to print out a single page at the hotel's "business centre" was 150 rupees (about $4). The fee--its amount or its existence--wasn't posted anywhere. There was absolutely no notice of what amounted to a hidden, ridiculous fee. But what triggered something akin to rage was the fact that when I complained, I was told, "Yes, that is unfortunate, but I can't do anything about that. That is the fee...," then asked a moment later, "Would you like to make any suggestions or recommendations? How can we improve our service?" Yes, here's a recommendation: put a sign up and refund me the ridiculous charge! "I'm sorry, that's not possible, but thank you for your suggestion. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

It would be one thing if there had been some kind of notice posted at the computer or door. I'd have had to suck it up. I definitely wouldn't have felt compelled to violently scribble across the proffered feedback form, or to speak to the head-wobbling but inert manager about the latest of many annoying hidden fees. But there had been no notice! As with so many things, it seems that, in India, there are a gazillion rules and no way of agreeing to abide by them in advance, or to consciously disobey them. How can a society function without the concept of notice?!

But maybe my anger wasn't really about notice.

If this were France or Russia, and the staff just shrugged scornfully and didn't care to hear why I was so pissed, I would be angry, but condescension wouldn't be part of the mix. Why? Because the arrogant nonchalance with which my complaint would be treated would smack of willfulness, not incompetence. Why is willfulness somehow less scornworthy than incompetence? Perhaps even while an arrogant refusal to help is a form of deliberate incompetence, there remains a fragment of a respectable trait: arrogance is the darkling cousin of confidence, which is something Americans admire and envy.

This hotel manager, however, was not arrogant. He never looked me in the eye with an attitude remotely conveying, "To hell with your complaint; pay up." His attitude conveyed something approaching grovelling, or an extreme dutifulness to customer service at the same time that his answers completely failed to fulfill that duty. It suggested, simulateneously, goodwill and stupidity--a combination of qualities that is hard to respect. But shouldn't a genuine desire to remedy or improve something be admired and appreciated, even before or without results or success?

Why is goodwill mixed with failure infuriating in a way that mere laziness or obstructiveness is not?

The only answer I can stomach is that I was seeing through a servile hypocrisy. That I didn't really believe the manager when he said, "We'd like to know what you think would improve our service." That I thought he was lying and using false humility to take the firm ground of victimhood from under my angry feet. After all, to continue to be angry with him would make me a mean, demanding Westerner, wouldn't it?

But the other, less comfortable answer is that I really was a mean, demanding Westerner.

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