So far, one of my greatest culture shocks in Italy has been the sheer lack of customer service or willingness to be helpful.

Supermarket staff can be openly hostile if you upset them, which can be frightening if you don’t speak the language: eye-rolls and hand gestures abound when you fail to answer quickly enough on important questions like, “Do you have a store card?” or “Would you like some bags?”

But they aren’t the only low paid, low-level workers who can fuck up your day or, more likely, your sense of well-being. Since my role involves going into different companies and teaching people on their premises, I often deal with security guards and receptionists and there’s a ritual that goes with that territory. You start by introducing yourself in bad Italian. They switch to bad English and ask for your passport. You hand it over and wait on average, at least 5 minutes for a visitors badge while 3 other security guards or workers sit around, chat or even in some cases, have a smoke. Meanwhile the security guard who was dealing with your inquiry takes another phone call or strikes up a conversation with his colleagues.

It doesn’t stop with people like me who, without any Italian language skill, can be easily taken advantage of. In the staff room, me and my colleagues swapped stories about the worst treatment they’ve ever had from security guards. The winner in this category was a receptionist who read her magazine while a queue of ten or so different people formed, including one of my colleagues. As she kept them waiting, a man with a suitcase stepped forward and announced himself; “My name is Luca Di Montezemolo and I have an appointment with your director of sales.”

For those of you who don’t know who he is… well, you can find his wikipedia entry here…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luca_Cordero_di_Montezemolo

So, I complained about a lack of customer service when I was in Britain and lamented how I remember things used to be. Due to privatisation, the increase of outsourcing and the need for ‘flexibility’ from employers we’ve developed a workforce who simply don’t receive enough benefits or remuneration to care any more or even have time to do the job at end of the day when they do.

In Italy the story runs a little deeper.

It was explained to me by my colleague that people in jobs without much responsibility are highly protected by Italian law. It’s very difficult to fire them unless they mess up in a huge way – like assaulting someone or something like that and of course, you can’t demote them. If companies take them to court, under the current system which favours the employee, if the employee is not found as a completely useless screw-up who may or may not be likely to murder someone then generally the company has to rehire them and pay them lots and lots of money. But why?

I only have the basics of the story so anyone from the country can feel free to correct me on this one but this goes back to a time when the unions were strong and pushed for these laws that simply haven’t been updated for a long time.

However, that doesn’t really explain why it’s ok to behave like a complete tosser for no apparent reason. Sure, the law might be on your side but why not spend the 8 or so hours you do work a day trying to smile and get greet people by doing the best job you can?

And for that answer we have to go deeper still and unfortunately I’m simply not knowledgeable enough about Italian culture to give a concrete answer. However, I can sure as hell make an educated guess!

In Italy, there is a strong mindset, almost a motto: “If you can get away with it, you can do it.” It affects how drivers treat the rules of the road, how corrupt government officials can do what they want and in this case, how lackadaisical they feel they can be towards company visitors and customers. Apparently, this mindset is taught in schools to kids, or at least not quite so negatively. It goes more along the lines of, “Rules can be questioned, everything has different sides to it and thus everything is questionable,” or words to those effect.

So in the case of these workers who are backed by the law and won’t ever really get fired, they can effectively treat people how they want and if they want to take a toilet break and leave the reception unmanned for 30 minutes, well, va bene.

What does this mean for me? It means I’ll probably have to test the boundaries; the next time a security guard makes me wait 5-10 minutes for a card, I’ll be walking away well in advance into the building shouting, “Sorry, I don’t have time.”

It also makes me worry about Scotland. If we do go Independent and unions become strong, as they are likely to in a left-leaning country, can we expect ridiculously overly-favourable labour laws for our public sector workers, who for the most part seem to spend most of the day on Facebook? I hope some consideration to countries like Italy gives us pause.

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