We know our problem, but what are the solutions?

I try to help my 10 year-old with appreciating maths by telling her that it’s what life is all about. In maths, if you multiply two negatives, you get a number that is positive. However, life does not reflect maths in that case. Jamaica’s multitude of behavioural negatives leave us with a negative impression.

Yesterday, I touched on what I may call Jamaica’s ‘out of orderness’: we just relish setting ourselves up to fail. I have to admit that it’s something that frustrates and annoys me; I know that many other people are similarly affected. Are we all put off by it? I can’t say. But, economics tells me that the answer must be no. Jamaica has shown its revealed preference; it’s bought more of the out of orderness than less. So, we have the country that most people want. We have to live with what we tolerate.

But, what is to be done, if we really do not want this situation to continue?

The short answer many people will offer is more education about the costs or impact of what we are doing. Put into that bag the idea that people need to learn to behave differently.

In the corporate or bureaucratic world that relearning has to come through retraining. I will give examples of the better behaviour we want to see.

  • Understand that time is money, and that lateness is costly. (Being on time and staying on schedule should be the norms.)
  • Give the customer/client your full attention when they approach, or have the courtesy to ask the person to just wait a moment. (The anecdotes about staff continuing private conversations while customers wait are legion. So, too are the side conversations that go on while people are being served.)
  • Do not act in a surly manner. (People rarely go to an office to have a fight. If they have problems, they want solutions, not abrasive or aggressive reactions.)
  • Do not abuse what little authority you may have. (Stories of brutish behaviour by police officers are so common that you have to believe that it’s seen as part of our culture of policing that roughness is an essential part of how the job is done.)

At the least, changes such as these will create a different atmosphere to each interaction. Most people can handle the disappointment of not having their problems solve immediately if they have not been made to feel bad or wrong about raising it.

I know that such practices are easy to follow. When my daughter and I returned to Norman Manley International Airport on Sunday, we were faced with a female Immigration Officer who had long highlighted braids. She immediately complemented my daughter on her good looks. I asked, jokingly, whether that bordered on harassment. We struck up a conversation with her about this while she checked our passports. Her comments were about how she does not want people to touch her hair; nor does she want people to feel they can rub her stomach if she’s pregnant: that would be harassment, in her eyes. She stamped our passports, wished us a good day, and we hoped that she had the same. My daughter and I quickly made comments about how this interaction differed from that we received at another Caribbean island’s main airport. There, it was a major event to get more than “Passport?” Smiles were not offered to incoming passengers. Instructions were curt, and the parting greeting was usually in the mail. Remember, this is an island that thrives on tourism. The first interaction with locals if often not pleasant.

Our experience with this Immigration Officer is similar to what has happened each time we’ve entered Jamaica over the past seven or so months. Either, the airport recruits the nicest people who have come from homes where such pleasant behaviour is the norm, or they are trained to present themselves in such a manner. I tend to think it’s the latter. On arriving in Montego Bay, we had been treated as nicely, but there one may think that the bias is towards ‘welcoming visitors’ to our tourism capital. Kingston does not have that driving it’s reception. So, we have a good example in the public sector.

I know of others in large private sector organizations. I’ve been impressed with the staff in Scotiabank branches, some of whom even go that extra step to jazz up the atmosphere on a Friday with singing and dressing up. That does not remove problems, such as slow-moving lines, but customers tend to be more tolerant after some light-heartedness. Scotiabank may be using that as a ploy to cover its inefficiencies, but it may just be working 🙂

I am not the typical Jamaican, so I will not suggest that what I feel needs to be done will meet the approval of others. However, the changes that seem desirable are really quite small.

I have commented a lot about bad road use behaviour. How hard is it, nowadays, to buckle up the seat belts? Clearly, very hard. I stopped to let out a couple coming out of their driveway in a huge SUV/truck. As they approached me to pass in the other direction, I gestured to their belts, which were unbuckled, and said “Put it on, please,” The lady said they were going to, and they both did. The man was wearing a very large crucifix and I could not resist saying that I thought the Lord needed him to not head up to Heaven too soon. The moral of the story is that using safety belts is not second nature to many Jamaicans. It is also disturbing that this is the case as much (or even more) amongst those who we may say should know better. In the upscale, uptown parts of Kingston, the children of the middle- and upper-classes bounce around in gay abandon inside vehicles. Parents, are sometimes strapped in, but often are yapping on the phone at the same time. It’s the privilege of wealth? I’m stumped.

Each of us who feel that these problems are weighing us and the country down needs to take control of the change. Maybe, I’m more activist in my approaches, but my reaction is going to be to address each case I can. It’s not a crusade, but the start of a lot of conversations. It happened on the road. It also happened on the phone: I rang an insurance company yesterday to return a call. I was passed on to three different people before I got a good answer to why I had needed to call. I identified myself to the first responder and explained why I had called. Each person to whom I was forwarded asked me my name, or just said “Hello,”. None of them knew why I had called. I said at the end that this seemed inefficent, even rude. A friend suggested that it was perhaps a security ploy to ensure that I was who I said I was. I didn’t buy that. Nor did the last person on the other end of the phone, who agreed that it was not good business practice and that she would speak to other staff. I would like to think that happened, but was happy that my point was acknowledged.

But, there’s a long road to walk and it may be rocky and mostly uphill.

Heading home in traffic last night, a policeman was directing traffic near Devon House. He was stopping turns to the right onto Hope Road (normally allowed). One driver, wanting to turn right, was getting annoyed as the officer signalled she must turn left. She delayed her turn, gesturing to where she wanted to go. He continued pointing her to the right. She waved her arms out of the car, and held her head in her hands, then accelerated around the corner, as directed. Yes, she was frustrated and perhaps going to be a little later getting to whereever. The officer did not approach the car in any hostile manner; he did not appear to change his demeanour. He certainly did not set off to beat the driver. He did not have the opportunity to get warm and fuzzy with the lady driver, but tried to stay focused on his main task. No other drivers seemed bothered by his commands. Let’s give that policeman an A: he displayed most of the behaviour I noted above. Who’s next?