“Service Desert Germany” – unfortunately that is one of the self-bestowed nicknames of my mother country. At least it was true in many ways when I lived there. Who knows where it derived first or whence? I guess it all started when Germany recovered from World War II. At first, pretty much everybody was lending a hand to make survival possible in a totally destroyed country. But with the onset of a healthy economy, with the food wave of the Fifties, and the traveling wave of the Sixties, obviously quite a few people forgot what it means to lend a hand. The first so-called guest-workers were transported into Germany from Italy. Later, there came more from all over the Mediterranean countries. When the Iron Curtain vanished, people from the former Eastern Block states arrived.
Today, a huge chunk of the German gastronomy is in foreign hands. So are small grocery stores and delicatessen, gas stations, dry cleaners, shoe makers, or locksmiths. The public services such as garbage are mainly operated by immigrants. Trades such as carpentry, construction work, plumbing, or car mechanics are often learned by the children of former immigrants. Whereas Germans either charge more or offer less service, their businesses rely on traditions in which the family plays a big role – and that enables them to offer good service at lower prices. If anybody complains about so many businesses and services in Germany not being in German hands anymore: the desire for quick money with as little effort as possible is the sad reason.
Arriving in a small-town in Washington and trying to find my way around, made me aware that service is not a question of ethnicity. For my first experiences were with sales assistants in supermarkets, with officials at administrations, and with staff at a military hospital. Let me share it with you.
Doing groceries on my own for the very first time over here, I had to scan aisle after aisle for everything that I needed, of course. It took me long to get to the bottom of my short list, with many detours and returns to a number of aisles. Surely – and don’t ask me why – one of the articles I “needed” was anchovies’ fillets, and I simply couldn’t find them. Not knowing what the product would look like (would it come it in a glass or a can?) didn’t make it easier. A sales associate noticed my cluelessness and asked me what I was looking for. I didn’t expect her to be much of a help. The most I expected was being sent to another aisle – because that’s what usually happens in Germany: “Das ist da hinten” – as in “you’ll find it back there”. Instead, the sales associate took me to a specific aisle, she also checked the shelves until she found the can I’d been searching for. Ever since I’ve kept coming back to this supermarket, experiencing the kindest service imaginable. It feels unbelievably comfortable, and I have developed real friendships with quite a few of the service personnel – amongst them that lady who helped me that very first time.
Grumpy officials in administrations? I needed to see Social Security a month after I had arrived over here as my “Green card” hadn’t made it in the mail to me. The lady at the window was not only focused on her job, she also seemed to know what worried me. So, she didn’t just check her computer about it, but she actually filled in forms with me – and the very next day I had my paperwork in my mailbox. I call that customer-oriented! Service was friendly and impeccable. For sure, German administration employees are also friendly. But they usually don’t get to that level of personal communication I found over here in Washington.
Though I had heard rumors galore about unfriendly staff at a nearby military hospital, I would see for myself when I had to go in for an emergency. Not only was the receptionist very friendly, but also the nurse who took over from there. I bet she didn’t earn a fortune, but she gave away a fortune in kindheartedness and emotional support. Later she saw to it that I didn’t feel forgotten in the waiting room, but kept coming off and on to see to me. Memories flood back of a time I spent as a teenager in a German civilian hospital. Nurses there left me, a then very shy teenager (too shy to ask for anything) thirsting in my hospital bed for an entire long night, and they almost let me walk with a catheter still in my arm. I recall gruff nurses at another German hospital with church connections. It reminds me of German doctors who wouldn’t tell you that they were performing minor mouth surgery on you until they were done. In doctors’ offices and hospital over here I feel like a person, not like a case that needs to be rushed through. I call that a holistic approach to medicine.
There are countless situations each of us experiences each and every single day around here. If you grew up here, you are probably used to that. I find the level of individual involvement at all kinds of institutions and businesses often exceptional. This high level of service is often delivered in places I don’t expect it. It’s not only delivered by ethnic minorities who want to make a living. I find it at all levels of hierarchies and over all ethnicities. And I certainly realize how much of my daily level of feeling good derives from these friendly service encounters.
Fred Block says
With all the negative news that we see everyday, it is nice to be reminded that there are kind people all around….thank you.
Susanne Bacon says
Thank you so much for your kind words, Fred!
Joseph Boyle says
Excellent observations and excellent article. Thank you.
The entity that surprised me was The Social Security Administration (SSN). I started contributing to Social Security at age 15 1/2 as I started my first job at Food Giant, a grocery store in Seattle. 47 years later I made contact with our local Social Security office. It might have been for the entire 47 years that I pictured, that SSN, being an arm of our giant government would create nothing but hassle and grief for me as I tried to apply for my retirement benefit.
I have made several additional trips to SSN in my roll as Executor for a couple of friends who died.
Here is what surprised me. I found SSN staff to be fabulous each and every time. They were there to serve their public in the best way possible. My worse fears were totally ungrounded. They treated me like my name was Susanne Bacon.
Susanne Bacon says
You make me smile big time, Joe. And by the way, I always enjoy reading your articles, too! To judge from them, you are a wonderful person, and they just treated you the way a Joe Boyle deserves it …
Beverly Isenson says
Perhaps there is a link between courtesy to foreigners and relative inattention to ‘einwohners’ – locals. I have visited Berlin, and Bonn and other towns and villages in Germany for weeks at a time during the past two decades, and spent many weeks in Bavaria for several years in the 1960s. People were almost always helpful and patient in helping me with my fractured German.
In those early years, in another German-speaking country, when I walked into a shop, the staff saw me as a dollar sign. Sometimes they even talked to each other about that, assuming I did not understand their greed. I did understand their sad economic situation, recovering from a war which they started. So I showed them patience and kindness, and their greetings became genuinely welcoming.
Susanne Bacon says
Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’m glad you found it not too bad.
Interestingly enough I found the link why Germany is called a service desert – it has got nothing to do with being a German customer, but all with the business mentality. Please find attached the link including the coining source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servicewüste
Paul Nimmo says
I find it refreshing that a “foreigner” reminds us of all we take for granted in our own Country.
When I hear from people complaining about bringing their own bags to the grocery store (and even having to bag their own groceries), I thought that was how it was supposed to be, all my relatives have been doing it forever in Germany. We are spoiled by the Capitalist Safeways of the world who bag our groceries… for free.
Maybe if we could put down our cell phones long enough to engage the service providing employee in conversation, maybe they would learn about our lives and even our name. And we could potentially also bring out a phrase I no longer hear enough… Thank You.
Susanne Bacon says
Thank YOU, Paul, for your wonderful and kind words. I so agree with you.