I was now at the head of the queue. I was at a government office, waiting patiently in line to be served. On the tannoy a voice called out a number, and I made my way over to the booth.
Behind the glass sat a middle aged man. His face was well groomed, cleanly shaven and his hair combed to a side parting. He wore dark brown plastic glasses, inexpensive but well cared for. Though the office environment was a controlled temperate, outside it was autumn. He wore a dark grey hooded jumper over an off-white shirt. Indeed, there was much about the man that was autumn: in his age and the slight stoop of his body; in what he wore and the way he wore it; and in the way he moved sheets of paper between a copier and his small desk.
To the right of the booth was a laminated sheet on which was written a name. His name.
As he looked up from his small workspace at one more customer, I smiled and said:
“Hello Mister To.”
With this short, most simple of greetings his demeanour changed. It was as if a light wind had lifted his spirits. He sat up ever more slightly, his hunch corrected, as if to attention. His movements were not forced, as a man responding to an order, but were made with the ease that comes with joy. Even his face seemed to colour, the blood rushing through but stopping just short of a blush. And though he seemed to resist their beamed an unmistakable smile.
As I waited in line that day I could not help but notice how very few people are prepared to greet those people whom are providing us a service. The few that did were almost all elderly ladies — not women, and I do make the distinction. And yet even then, and despite there being name plates at every booth, none addressed the people behind the screen by their name.
In over an hour spent at this government office I seemed the only person to have greeted by name the person serving me, and in doing so was privileged to be served by Mister To with genuine consideration and good humour. This is unlike the forced humour and address one receives when served, say, at a bank. Here the sales staff must wear a uniform, and are made up as dolls with their painted skin and manicured fingers. These artificial people greet everyone with an artificial smile.
“Have a nice day,” you sometimes hear them say, an innocent phrase now debilitated by commercialisation. The Japanese phrase “irasshaimase” — which roughly translates to “welcome to the shop” — is at least phrased as a greeting and makes no secret of intent: the welcome is for you, the customer, to shop. The problem with all such taught phrases is exactly that they are taught; they are phrases we learn to say at a given circumstance. They have no actual meaning for the person. Thus, these phrases rolls off us as water off a ducks back.
The real shame of such commercialisation of the simple act of greetings is that it makes us less sensitive to greetings given with sincerity and genuine consideration. Just as I find the concept of uni-formality adhered to by all branded companies demeaning to those people trapped within the uniform. I don’t want to have an appointment with an Apple “Genius” but with a person with a name. And when I see this person, I want to know him or her not merely as a company uniform but as a person whose presentation represents who they are as people.
One sad little irony is that often companies that claim to stand for respect are those that in their practices are the most disrespectful. From large corporations like airlines and banks, to small art galleries, you can be certain almost anyone in a “relationship” role represents only a very narrow, and very upbeat and physically beautiful, segment of society. They are also, like great actors and con-artists, able subsume their personal identity for another, but in this case to one defined by the company they are paid to represent.
As children we are taught to greet people with an address. When my nieces and nephews see me they greet me as “yi jerng” and “goo jerng” respectively. When I see my English speaking relatives and even close acquaintances it is always “hello uncle Andrew” or “hello auntie Christine”. It’s a sign of respect as well as caring to address those we meet whose name we know, and depending on their relationship with us.
In return for a simple hello we are almost inevitably gifted a smile, and the interaction begins on the right foot. We feel good having broken the mere formality of title, and engaged a person by their name. The receiver in turn feels both respected and addressed as a human being.
Yet as we age I see so many people lose their sensitivity to this simple pleasure. Perhaps we believe life has become too fast or in other ways too serious and important to bother with such simple formalities. Too often we bark out orders, telling the taxi driver only an address, or silently handing over our credit card to the cashier. Yet both have a name card, and both have a name that is known to us.
What we forget is that still the majority of services provided rely on people, and these people deserve to be acknowledged. Thirty years ago that taxi driver may well have been my uncle. And that lady at the cashier may well be my mother-in-law.
My business done, quickly and with the efficiency for which Hong Kong is famed, I am ushered towards the shroff and yet another queue.
Thank you Mister To,” I say. “No, thank ‘you’ Mister Fowler,” is his reply. As I leave and he begins to serve another customer I see that his face remains warm with colour. Sometimes just by remembering the smallest of courtesies we have the power to transform someones day.