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  • David Holloway

Singapore's Politeness Epidemic

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

Singapore, you're so pretty. But is that enough?

It’s nice to be polite. Unless the look you’re going for is antisocial personality disorder or something similar, it’s an absolutely critical life skill.

And Singapore is polite. It’s one of the nicest things about living here. Generally speaking, people are gentle and courteous to each other. With its usual well-intentional paternalism, the government promotes it as “kindness”, though radio ads, posters and decals on trains and through the public examples of its leaders. The result is a city where people behave much more generously to each other in public places, such as on public transport. And this is something to be celebrated.

But there is an unintended consequence of this politeness reflex. It emerges in customer service.

A common experience here is “retail frustration”. It’s most often seen in food and beverage service, but it also appears in clothing shops, coffee houses and interactions with phone and utility companies. People all around the world experience these frustrations. But in Singapore they are unique. Whereas in a country like the United States there is a genuine urge to provide customer service, in Singapore the relexive response is to inflexibly repeat the menu (or the product specification, or the rules of the terms and conditions). And then to apologise. But nothing more. It’s as if the “sorry” is all that you came for.

Customer-facing staff in Singapore will say “sorry” far sooner than their counterparts in other countries. But they generally have absolutely no idea what to do after that.

These signs are in every store in Singapore. Could too much politeness be the cause?

The first problem is that, because they are not sure of themselves, far too often the sorry is said robot-like. It’s plainly not meant sincerely. It’s being said because it’s a reflex, not because it’s genuinely motivated.

Worse, the apology supplants responsibility. In these situations, sorry is a surrender. It’s not a solution. People generally don’t want to hear sorry. They want what they paid for, what they asked for, what they were promised. The sorry can come later. An aggrieved customer is more likely to want an understanding of their needs, an acknowledgement that something unpleasant has happened and a genuine attempt to rectify the problem. They may even be looking for empathy (not just sympathy) from the person they are dealing with.

So, my dear Singapore, let us celebrate our politeness but let it not be the only thing we offer.