I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man… I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so… When petitioners used to come for information to the table at which I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy. I almost did succeed. For the most part they were all timid people — of course, they were petitioners. (Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground)
According to a recent Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum, Russia was voted among the top three most-unfriendly countries for tourists! Is this surprising?
The Cold War is now over. By most accounts, it appears the West has won. However, it seems the real battle may just be heating up. With America leading the way, the path engineered by the West has spawned an economic and cultural hegemony that is conquering the globe, including Siberia. I call this hegemony the curriculum of the West. Just look at the Cinnabon and Subway shops popping up around Barnaul, if you don’t believe me. Yet, the ascendancy of American-style capitalism has also unleashed a rash of values – individualism, consumerism, and competition – whose dissemination is lightning fast, wide ranging, and spreading insidiously, enabled by the very technologies to which capitalism itself gave rise.
But where are compassion, cooperation, and caring in a world that values individual competitiveness and winning above all else? The first fatalities in this atmosphere are natural expressions of human caring and concern for others. It is one reason American business itself has undergone decades of “psych-ops” a.k.a. customer service training – just attempting to undo the negative effects of a highly contestual zero-sum game.
Unfortunately, economic gain and personal advancement – along with an accompanying undercurrent of greed and hubris – appear now to constitute a new attitude even here in Altai Krai. With an implacable call for progress and unrestrained growth, it is no wonder we are so pre-possessed by the dream of independence, the acquisition of new toys or economic privilege. Some might say it is globalization of the American Dream – the Holy Grail of an unrelenting drive for acquisitions, and the promise of a better and brighter future. But the trajectory of this teleological movement may be driving us ever closer to an apocalyptic conclusion.
The unyielding pressure of global capitalism distracts attention from the innate risks associated with unrestrained economic growth, commercial exploitation, and the drive for individual advancement. We end up consuming and depleting all available resources (including our own lives and those of our neighbors’) in the name of establishing what amounts to an erector-set village artfully crafted from infantile dreams of omnipotence, conquest, and domination. Just look at how folks drive their cars here in the city of Barnaul – nobody and nothing shall stand in their way. This will give you an indication of the dark underbelly of progress. Concern for other persons, and with it, the concept of service, becomes anathema to finishing a mad dash up the ladder of personal gain.
Yet our suspicions go undetected and our faith in this curriculum, along with its promise of personal happiness, remains intact. We continue driving, accepting as axiomatic that the paths of commercial success, material abundance, and personal righteousness coincide. In fact, we take for granted that progress is a good in itself – the only means of achieving ‘the good life’. But why do we hold tight to this belief?
Like the rest of the Soviet Bloc, Siberia and Altai Krai were forcibly excluded from all the “fun” of casino capitalism for almost a century. But the forbidden fruits are now within your grasp. The citizens of Barnaul have awakened to smell the coffee. In fact, the coffee shops here are multiplying like rabbits on holiday. And while more and more of you are putting a new car in the garage previously used as a root cellar, we are choking on your noxious fumes. You can see this among the economically mobile and even among those with marginal commercial success here in the city. You cannot live without your cell phones, your iPads and iPods, your big screen HDTVs, your recently financed cars and newly minted driver’s licenses. You have tasted the promise of the spectacle, and are mesmerized by its elusive appeal.
But perhaps we all want too much and too quickly. What is this pace of commercial development, economic expansion, and material accumulation costing you personally and socially here in Altai Krai, in Barnaul? And do we need to moderate such expectations – this desire to live the Dream – out of concern for the cultural heritage and natural history that surrounds us? This should remain a principal question in any discussion on the future of Altai commerce, service, and tourism. However, it is precisely this question that gets thrown under the bus, in deference to the apparently more important matters of business and the insatiable quest for success.
So what does this all mean in terms of clients and customer service? Is the quality of economic interactions important to us, or is it just the next sale that matters? How do we regard our environment — the land, the air, and water? Or are they merely commodities to be used and used-up in the interest of the next commercial transaction? How do we educate our children? Do we focus only on the skills required to generate capital and sell product? Or do we focus on educating the whole person, with a careful eye to our traditions, our history, and the diverse legacies of the legendary Siberian soul? Do we move to expand the economy without restraint, or do we first think about the world we want to inhabit and the world we want to leave to our children’s children? How we treat one another in this economic free-for-all is, I believe, infinitely more important than how much money we make. I realized this myself, as I have had to check my own impatience with business-as-usual in Barnaul.
It has been recognized over the past several decades by scholars in diverse disciplines, that a key to our survival as a species, and a primary marker of the Homo genus was our sociability and our natural sharing of resources, whether that meant sharing food from the hunt, tools, or even sexual favors. Our earliest forebears, living in small tribal bands of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers, shared anything and everything: that is what distinguished us from most, if not all, of our primate cousins. Sharing, as a basic and primal human activity, militated against the establishment of hierarchy and individual acquisitiveness. Hierarchy and competition only emerged with the birth of cities on the heels of agriculture a mere six thousand years ago. But for two hundred thousand years before that, Homo sapiens were egalitarian; and for two million years prior, earlier members of our genus (Home erectus, Homo neanderthalens) also lived in small egalitarian bands.
So, what does this have to do with client service and tourism? Well, perhaps nothing. But, service is fundamentally giving something of your self to the other. It is essentially an act of sharing, reinforcing bonds of kinship, of affinity, of caring between and among people. The concept of client or customer service represents a modern example of this primal and very natural human tendency to share. It is how our earliest ancestors lived before the first city walls were erected, before the first social laws were enacted, before the first kings and priests started lording it over the rest of us, first giving voice to the illusion that competition and personal advancement — getting to the top of the power pyramid — were all that mattered.
I am not suggesting that providing good customer service is a ‘noble’ act. It is not. It is simply a human act, naturally human. It is not a selfless act either, because as an act of sharing, it implicates you in a profound circle of reciprocity (giving and receiving). But neither is it calculating, like a quid pro quo – doing something in order to get something in return. It is merely the human thing to do, rooted in our very genetic makeup as a species, in our Pleistocene origins.
Here in Altai Krai, in Siberia, and more generally in Russia, there may be two factors inhibiting a more giving and forgiving attitude in both commercial and social interactions. On the one hand, there are distinct remnants of an older Soviet-style command and control mentality – visible in that ‘spitefulness’ of which Dostoyevsky so clearly speaks. On the other hand, there is a new and increasingly narrow focus on the cult of the individual and its entitlements. This attitude is born of the mad dash-to-succeed within an emergent capitalist system – creating a new form of hierarchy grounded in competition and material acquisition, together with their assumption of social and political privilege. Perhaps we need to remain vigilant of both.
I conclude with an enlightening confession by Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero in Notes From Underground.
I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with the petitioners… and in reality I never could become spiteful. I was conscious every moment in myself of many, very many elements absolutely opposite to that. I felt them positively swarming in me, these opposite elements. I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet from me, but I would not let them, would not let them, purposely would not let them come out. They tormented me till I was ashamed: they drove me to convulsions and–sickened me, at last, how they sickened me!