Making Courtesy Count

IF there is ever a time that I gauge someone else's character, it is when they interact with people from the service industry or of socially lower status. I recently had lunch at a 'mamak' with one of my theater peers, a quirky guy I have thoroughly enjoyed working with before. A salesman interrupted us to try and sell us a camping lamp. Interested, I asked for the price.

“Only 13 Ringgit, Ma'am,” came the reply. My friend asked to bring the price down to RM10, to which the salesman apologised about it being too close to the cost price. Suddenly, my friend snapped.

“If it's not RM10, then take it back! You don't need our business.” He picked up the lamp, slammed it on the table for the salesman to take it back, looked the other way and shooed him off with his hand. The salesman, humiliated in public, reluctantly accepted the sale.

Not only was I already fine with the prospect of paying RM13, but the pompous attitude displayed by my friend, a side which I had never seen before, had unfortunately affected my view of him as a jolly good fellow.

On the flip-side, I have also dealt with unpleasant customers in my previous job, as an events manager for a live entertainment company. One weekend while I was resting at home, an irate self-proclaimed VIP called me on my cellphone to say that he had misplaced his complimentary tickets to our latest show, and demanded to get another free pair the day before his showtime.

The more I tried to explain to him that such a last-minute request was not logistically feasible, the louder the man's voice got, to the point of him making personal attacks and insulting my upbringing! Coming from someone who was responsible for the loss his own tickets in the first place, it makes me wonder how some people believe that being a customer instantly warrants the right to be self-righteous.

Living in a city as large and diverse as Kuala Lumpur, one of the things I am becoming sensitive to how I treat others. I find myself constantly keeping tabs on my interactions with people the moment I leave my mother's house, with staff in shops and F&B outlets, with people who help me get from one place to another, and even the random strangers I pass.

I think to myself, was I polite enough to this person? Did the situation call for a bit more courtesy than usual? And if I missed such a cue, then how do I stay more attuned to my environment next time?

A particular incident four years ago heightened my sense of awareness of others. I had lost my cellphone on my way to a magazine shoot at Midvalley. It popped out of an unzipped compartment of my backpack as I was running to catch a bus.

When I returned to the area half an hour later, two construction workers told me that they had seen someone pick it up. One of the workers allowed me to use his own cellphone to call my own.

The person on the other end of the line told me to meet him at the carpark of Bangsar Shopping Centre. He turned out to be yet another construction worker who was working on the mall's renovation. He returned my phone with a shy smile, but scurried away when I offered him some cash as a token of appreciation.

Through my encounter with these three helpful and honest blue-collar foreign workers, my world suddenly felt bigger, as I began to acknowledge people whom I had previously taken so much for granted.

I now nod a hello to workers at construction sites. Instead of driving by, I look at toll booth operators in the face and thank them earnestly. For a couple of years, I was even 'friends' with a street sweeper who worked on the highway I walked along on my way to my office. We shared mores smiles than words, but our simple greetings complemented my start to the day - and I'd like to think his, too!

I mention these thoughts in light of the upcoming New Year countdown, a time of the year that a small percentage of the population will have to be at their most vigilant – cooking, serving drinks, checking guest lists at the door, cleaning up as soon as the last streamer can is emptied, and being on standby in police stations and hospitals. It would be nice to lend a thought and be respectful towards those who make not just our celebrations, but our everyday urban living that much more tolerable.

Once we realise that we needn't be selective about being gracious, we could perhaps forget about 'tolerating' it at all.

The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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