How behaviour matters: Jamaican ambassadors are everywhere

I believe strongly that the things wrong with Jamaica are not that hard to fix, but they are hard to fix because they require all of us to see and understand how WE contribute to our own failings. By that, I mean a certain attention to detail in all that we do (and say and think). I’ll give a few examples, and they are relevant because we look at our neighbours and sometimes marvel at their quality of life that is supposedly better than ours. Now, on that point, it’s hard to be sure that everything is always rosier elsewhere, but we often get that impression, and it’s impressions that count a lot.

We set off on our annual Christmas journey to my wife’s homeland in Nassau yesterday, and had to deal with a few hiccups along the way, as is often the case with international travel. First, American Airlines had a hard time processing us at check-in, but that’s because we have a complicated family profile of nationalities and status. But, the Jamaican workers at the desk were exemplary in being calm, patient, courteous, and apologetic as it took almost an hour to get all of the checking in done. We had a lot of bags–Christmas presents from Jamaica, boosting exports :)–and fortunately our routing meant we did not have to collect them in Miami. So, my takeaway is a positive for the Jamaican worker. That view did not change much as we moved through the airport and headed to our flight. I had a slight reservation as the official who checks that people are eligible for the lounge called me back to verify my status. She had positioned herself to deal with the general flow of passengers, so forced me to have to back track to do this, when a few steps over on her part could mean that all flows of people must pass by her. It’s a small thing, but it isn’t done (I’ve been through this stop a lot), and someone must be giving instructions that are followed to this effect. So, only a little downward blip in perceived quality of Jamaican workers.

The lounge staff have a job to do of being gracious and they usually do this well. Plus to Jamaica. We were escorted to the gate, when called, but… The AA crew were not there, apparently due to a mix-up in getting from the hotel. We were told it would mean an hour delay. That’s a negative against US workers (so the great are less than ordinary in Jamaica–and it may be our water :)) So, off we traipsed back to the lounge. I took the opportunity to contact AA on Twitter about the snafu and they were quick to reply and assure me that all would be well and travel would continue smoothly. So, plus for US workers, and we are often asked to look at the way that US customer service puts the client first. Can we say the same about Jamaica? I think not, in general, and I don’t think I need to cite any or many examples

We got off within an hour and the flight was smooth. The transit in Miami is long, but as we had only hand luggage, we could get through quickly and did not risk missing our connection. But, once we’d had the chance to grab a bite, and headed off to our next gate, we hit another AA snafu. Imagine! The crew for our next flight were also a no-show. Sorry, AA, I had to get back to them and wonder what was going on. Again, quick apologies and and assurances, and yes we were off on time, despite that hold-up. So, the view that US quality service is there wasn’t shaken too much. Now, could we take lessons from that and pledge to Jamaicans that their interactions with local businesses would leave them feeling that they are valued customers? Let me leave the question open. 

When we landed in Nassau a band was playing as we entered the Immigration Hall. My wife–a good patriot–complimented her country on giving the arriving tourists some cheer. The snaking line did not get any shorter as we listened to ‘rake and scrape’, but I understood her point. However, being a contrarian, I replied that I wasn’t sure that the pandering mattered. She bridled at my reaction. Nothing new 🙂 Why did I say that? It became clearer once we got though Immigration. Pander means to gratify, and what I perceived was a sense of ‘giving them what they expected’, i.e. cheery island vibes as soon as they landed. Fine! But, what was the reality they had to face? In the baggage claim, suitcases were coming quite quickly and most of our bags were there when we got through Immigration. But, my golf bag was nowhere to be seen. I asked my wife to query an official who was beside her. She did not hear me, so I approached the man myself and sought to ask. He was in the process of ‘canoodling’ with someone he knew–a lady–and happy in the process. (Not untypical in our region.) Pardon my interruption! He then went into an elaborate explanation in well-modulated English and lots of long words about where oversized bags would be found. Problem? He hadn’t been much interested in problem-solving beforehand and there were no signs in the baggage area that pointed to such an area and it’s tucked way in the back of the baggage hall, behind ‘Baggage Services’. That’s a sort of Caribbean way of doing things, which is to forget that people from abroad need guidance to understand our ways. (We see it a lot in, say, how we determine what information to place on our roads as directions. Roads without signs. Houses without names or numbers. You know! Look for the mango tree and turn left past the rock. It’s improved a lot, but you know what I mean. Thankfully, Google Maps now works in Jamaica.) I got my bag and we were out in a flash. Then the pandering, already wearing thin, stopped completely. “Man, gotta get this f***ing thing moving, man!” I overheard, from a man in a nice suit and tie, looking like he was working for a limo service, as I walked through the phalanx of official meeters and greeters for hotels and businesses. So, the people working around the airport don’t see that ‘nice behaviour’ is part of the package they must present as this is often the first real contact visitors get. So, jolly music doesn’t compensate for the rude awakening one gets as soon as one sets foot amongst the ‘real people’. This is also a very Jamaican problem when people arrive at NMIA (I rarely go to Sangster). 

Now, we can argue about whether we are invested in tourism the same way The Bahamas is supposedly, but is that the point? To me, it’s about constant states of awareness. I’ve written before about how Jamaicans are not invested in tourism, and Kingston is certainly less so than, say, Montego Bay. But, it’s also a matter of whether each citizen sees him- or her-self as an ambassador, writ small. It’s hard for that to happen when you have people who are not necessarily versed in good manners, so to be civil is a new thing. I’m not going to criticize every Jamaican for being boorish. I’m just pointing out that it’s something to correct if we want to get from here to there (the land of #5in4). 

You may want to take issue with me, but many countries that are invested in tourism but as part of a bigger range of economic activities often display a civility that makes visitors wish to return. Generalizations are dangerous, but let me cite Germany, Switzerland and Norway as examples. I do not include the USA, because I see the same boorish traits that hamper us there: ‘please’ has been removed from the language as in ‘Passport!…Take off your belt!’ We Jamaicans still have a little of that civility left in certain settings: I recall last week how appalled a lady was as a teenager strolled past her at the swimming pool without a mere ‘Hello!’ The lady muttered “Damn rude!” I knew the girl and pointed out that she was American. “Aho!” We know what we’re dealing with.

This story isnt finished as we went to a little roadside cafe for some conch salad and conch fritters–like dipping your hands in Holy Water for a Bahamian. There, civility was on display with raw natural actions. The owner of the ‘shack’ was working his way through the head of his fried fish as we arrived. I looked up and he asked me why. I told him I was checking on the sign. He nodded. My wife looked around and he told his staff to serve us. They were just chilling and hanging with customers at the bar. Our orders were taken and we decided to move from the road side to the back, overlooking the harbour. It was calmer. A lone American was drinking a beer. His conch salad came and he started to enjoy it. Our food came and we did likewise, with our drinks (Sky Juice–gin, coconut water and condensed milk :)). My daughter and I noticed a little play going on with the American. A waitress came and lounged in front of him, like Salome, and started to talk to him. He said often and softly “I’m married…My wife is…” but ‘Salome’ pressed on. It was funny as it went on without my wife seemingly aware. Our server came to be paid and I asked her a few questions. As soon as she heard our accents, she modified her speech and started to say ‘…Sir’ and ‘…Madam’ after every sentence. We left about the same time as Mr. America. My daughter and I explained to Mummy what had been going on and why we were laughing.

My take away? I didnt get the impression that the visitor was offended, and he seemed to take it as ‘just how they are’. Interactions like this happen everywhere tourists frequent, because they are captive for a while and can be exploited in nice and less nice ways. We have some Caribbean ways that are charming and others that make one wonder. Not sure where to go with that episode, but I’ll ponder it.

But, my bottom line from just a few hours of travel is that we need to pay attention to what we do. How do we represent ourselves and what lasting memory will we leave with others? That’s a level of consciousness that may be hard when it seems that life is just one massive struggle after another. But, it’s a change in outlook that has to happen if we want to move from being a people of constant massive struggles.

Enjoy your Christmas! Eat and be merry and remember to leave each person you meet feeling better for having met you.