Eastern Europe is good for the mind, body and soul. Just the other day, I was talking to a good friend (another expat), and we were discussing why we like this region so much. I concluded it’s because this region is the exact opposite of the West: less consumerism, more authenticity and just general more bluntness without all the fake bullshit.
Recently, however, something has been annoying me about the culture. At first I didn’t know what it was, but after thinking about it for a while, the best way to describe it is there’s a certain lack of “polishness” in the culture. In fact, it can be pretty abrasive at times.
For instance, the other day I requested a taxi via Uber.
The driver arrives and calls me.
“I’m here,” he says.
“Where, here?” I ask him.
“I’m standing at the point you requested.”
“I don’t see you. You’re not at the address I requested,” I tell him.
“No, but I’m at the point.”
“Well, I requested the taxi at a certain address and so you must meet me at this address,” was my reply.
“But I’m standing at the point that’s on the map.”
“But that’s not the address…,” was my annoyed response.
By this time I was ready to hang up and take the bus.
This guy was waiting a few blocks away and refused to go and meet me at the correct address even though he understood that he was incorrect and I was correct.
This, in a nutshell, is the Ukrainian customer service. There’s a reluctance to meet the customer/client at least half the way. There’s also a reluctance to admit fault when the person is indeed wrong.
In this case it was the guy’s fault for not meeting me. He had the right address, but refused to drive to that address because the point on the map was in a different location.
As someone who was getting paid by me to do the work, he had the duty to meet me where I was standing.
Late last year, I rented a nice apartment in the center. Upon arrival I noticed that it was missing a few things. It was missing a hair dryer and a microwave, even though both of them were specified to be included in the apartment on the rental site.
I told the owner about it. To my complete surprise, the owner seemed completely unfazed and unhelpful. She said that the hairdryer was stolen by the previous owners and the microwave stopped working so she threw it out.
All of that might indeed have been true, but the main issue was that she wasn’t even willing to try to solve the problem. She acted like it was my fault for even mentioning this to her. It was as though I was wasting her time with my trivial and silly request. And, indeed, I felt that I was wasting her time for even making her aware of this fact.
I want to say that these have been isolated incidents, but the exception to the rule has actually been when a person was genuinely helpful and understanding. This has also been the case when with other expats that I know here.
Essentially, what you have is a culture that’s completely inflexible in a context of a business transaction (and most likely in personal relationships as well). In the West, there’s a widely accepted notion that the customer is always right. Just like 90-day returns, that’s something that seems to exist only in the West. In America, customer service will pretty much bender backwards to please you and make sure you’re happy.
But I’m not even asking for such royal treatment. No need for such generosity. No need for all the handholding. No need for the fake smiles. It’s not necessary. What’s missing is the ability to admit that something is wrong and it must be fixed. The taxi driver refused to go to the correct address because the point on his map was somewhere else. He knew he was standing on the wrong street. It would’ve taken him less than 5 mins to correct his mistake, but he refused.
The owner of the apartment could’ve at least tried to rectify the situation, because, after all, she was contractually obligated to provide the amenities stated in the agreement. But instead of being understanding and perhaps getting those items from another apartment (or just buying them), she refused to even take my request seriously.
This is one of the major complaints that I hear from the younger (18-34) generation. Many of them travel around the world (and even live abroad), experience some of the friendlier customer service cultures, and then return to Ukraine and are faced with this rudeness and inflexibility. Naturally, they want to leave out of the country on a one-way ticket and never come back.
My good Ukrainian friend, who has lived in Germany and the US, calls this “the Ukrainian hospitality.” Here’s how it works: first, the person asserts authority over you, and then puts you down and makes you feel like a complete idiot for even attempting to get them to understand your issue or problem.
Of course, this isn’t the case with everyone. There have been very helpful people that have gone out of their way to help me or my friends out. But they were definitely the exception to the rule rather than the norm.
This is similar to what I wrote about my experiences in Russia, where I was given very direct answers without anyone trying to “hold my hand.” In that situation, people simply helped as minimally as they could, but still helped. In this case, people are stubbornly refusing to even meet me halfway—when it’s absolutely clear that I’m right and they’re wrong.
If you’re a Westerner who’s used to a more comfortable customer of service relationship, then this will be a major part of your culture shock (and, indeed, this is what Westerners consider “the over-the-line rudeness” of Eastern Europeans). Or, maybe, if you’re an American guy, you might experience a more comfortable type of behavior when you use American-based services such as Uber and AirBnB. I noticed that people seem to change their behaviors by adopting to another culture when speaking a different language.
I spent a lot of time thinking why people behave this way, and came up with some explanations. In this part of the world, a person’s value is placed on honesty and trust. If a person appears as someone who says one thing and then changes their mind and does something else, he’s looked down upon and perhaps may not even be trusted in the future.
So, if someone takes a certain position (e.g., “the point on the map was here, so that’s where I’m going to pick you up”), they will find it hard to change their mind and do something else. They will stubbornly stick to their position come hell or high water unless you prove even more stubborn than they were and demand they serve you as a customer. This stubbornness is part of their culture.
That can be as result of being ruled by brutal dictators for pretty much as long as this region existed. People learned that authority is respected and in order to be respected by others, you must be tough and unwavering yourself. Being easygoing and flexible (e.g., like your typical guy from California) would be looked down upon and considered insincere and untrustworthy.
This has had a profound effect on me. It toughened me up. I became more hardened and less accommodating. Instead of being understanding and empathic to another person’s (incorrect) explanations (which is wrong anyway because you can rationalize pretty much everything even if it’s not done in your best interest), I would stick to the prior arrangement and demand they do what they agreed to do. I’d act more forcefully than I’d usually act in the West.
It also meant eliminating any passive-aggressive behavior and any signs of being a pushover. These are bad traits to have anywhere, but they’re completely useless here unlike some other parts of the world. Eastern European culture is not very kind to such displays of weaknesses. That’s like trying to spend Mexican pesos in Argentina. Just doesn’t work.
Nevertheless, while becoming tougher and more demanding are important qualities in any situation, stubbornness in refusing another person’s point of view, especially in the context of a business transaction, is counterproductive and wrong. Although I could be very accommodating, I do have my limits and boundaries as well, especially if I’m the one pumping much-needed dollars into the frail economy.
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James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.