This post is not miscategorized. Being rude to customers is one of the things that Italians get right. That is, they know how to be rude but, unlike the French or the English, the former from national chauvinism and the latter from class consciousness, Italian store owners and waiters are rude for all the right reasons.
One of the great neoliberal deceptions pedalled upon the practically disenfranchised American and British public is that if they dislike something, they can “vote with their feet”. Not only is this a philosophy that accords the same dignity to a dirty Pizza Hut as a Parliament, it also breeds a sense of consumer entitlement and its corollary, consumer rage. To advise people that removing their custom is an exercise of a democratic right is not only a lie, but it is also a counsel of abandonment rather than betterment; it discourages political intervention in industry and commerce, and promotes the commodification of the public sphere. This is sold to us as “choice”.
A corporation will go to considerable effort to persuade customers its services or products are good. If they need to back this up with some actual quality of service or price, they will trash the environment and exploit their workers. Thus is a “better” service guaranteed to the angry man in line who simply can’t believe that the wage slave behind the counter does not value his time and revere his custom.
In Italy, however, there has long been a healthy tradition of putting the customer second. The family-run food stores and pizza places often ample space behind the counter– for the convenience of the workers, often also the owners, rather than the customers. Italian bars, for example, don’t do snug. The man making the coffee is king, so much so that when the English finally started making coffee properly, they had to borrow the Italian term barista to indicate quality.
If the store is popular (because its products are good), the customers are obliged to clamour for attention until someone behind the counter deigns to favour them with a glance. And so, if you are lucky, the fantastically handsome and sulky young man may communicate with a reluctant shrug that he will, after all, lower himself to slicing you some culatello. Quite right that you be made to wait. The worker should have more dignity than the customer.
This commendable state of affairs, fostered by the Christian Democrats, continued until the 1990s when politicians like Prodi, Bersani and Monti unchained the supermarket chains. Now there are supermarkets everywhere, and all the profits are repatriated to France, the Netherlands and Germany. And they tell us it is for the sake of the (now unemployed/part-time and underpaid) Italian consumer.
The very first article of the Italian Constitution reads: “Italy is a democratic republic based on labour” (or “work”, if you prefer to translate lavoro in this way; it definitely does not translate as “customer service”).
If the shop, bar or restaurant itself is good, or the atmosphere is fun, or the prices extremely attractive, then there is no reason the customer should expect that his or her welfare should uppermost. The energy of the Italian owners has gone into other more worthwhile things, like good artisan work, fine ingredients, careful cooking and crafting and sourcing of materials.
So next time your pizza arrives at the table as if it were a Frisbee, the waiter tosses the forks down with a clatter in front of you and slops your beer, remember that you are here to eat excellent pizza, not have someone pretend to pay homage to you because you are a consumer. Next time your change is tossed contemptuously into the zinc plate beside the till rather than your outstretched hand, remember that money is dirt and should be treated as such.
The Italians had it right.