You can bank on me, but be patient

I spent too long in a bank, yesterday, doing a routine transaction. My daughter’s piano teacher wants her to take one of the music board exams. She wanted proof of payment by today, meaning a deposit voucher. So, I stood in line for over an hour to put $4000 or so into the board’s account. The line was about 40 people long when I joined it, and it stayed about that amount as people came and went.


When I joined three cashiers were working.

Some in the line began venting their frustration. A lady several places ahead grumbled about how the many other bank staff were doing nothing and could ease things by dealing with the line. She looked over to the customer service desk and complained how “there was no customer service”. I just happened to have been given clear advice from the person at that desk. “That’s nonsense,” I chimed in and explained why. The lady rolled on with her serial complaints. She was going to vent.

A man just in front of me started opining about how “we need to unite” and get the country moving in a better way. He chanted that two more cashiers would ease our waiting a lot. I began discussing with him the problems of slow cashiers and customers who love to talk about the world and their mothers. In the meantime, another cashier started to work. The line started to move a little faster.

I avoid going to banks. I pay every utility bill online. I use ATM to withdraw cash and now to make deposits. The limits on cash withdrawal from ATM force me to join the lines, occasionally, so that I can deal with some bigger cash transactions. Jamaica is heavily dependent on cash and I can’t change that singlehandedly. I try by using my debit/credit card a lot.

I’m not used to having to be in banks. But, most Jamaicans are. They spend hours there and I wondered about the lost man hours and productivity it caused. This is nothing new, but it seems in no hurry to change.

It’s chicken and egg. Many organizations are not set up to handle electronic payments. I recalled my long conversations with a hospital about how to settle bills other than by visiting it’s office or a bank. I felt like the archetypal alien. But, I got my way to work. Maybe, my refusal to schlep around helped.

My line was moving well and I was next to a large cardboard poster of a smiling bank employee, welcoming me and promising to serve me better.


I felt like putting my money into her hands and asking her to call me when all was done. It was an ironic assertion.

Some comments suggested that free WiFi would make waiting more bearable. One man was using his time to make his lotto picks. I noticed that some people were in line for others, mainly businesses, as places were exchanged. That made sense. Such is life. I would have liked tea and biscuits, milk no sugar and Digestives. Banks, please note.

Just like that, I was at the front. My “unity” man was already being served. He smiled at me. “You see, extra cashier made a difference,” he said with a smirk.

Over one hour had been spent in the company of my affable compatriots. I looked over at the section of the bank where senior citizens were seated, for their special services. They did not seem to have budged. Such is life.

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?

Taxing their patients

I have to laugh out loud sometimes. Humans amaze me for their supposed ability to solve complex problems coupled with an incredible inability to resolve simple issues. That awful combination sometimes makes my blood boil and that of others, though not necessarily for the same reasons. I suspect there is a reality show in the making, which looks at international comparisons of what failures of public administration drive people crazy. I suspect that Jamaica would do well–or is it badly?–when pitted against other countries.

Yesterday’s papers had two letters, which struck me between the eyes as possible candidates, though the first would struggle in the qualifying rounds One letter was from an irate woman, who was offended and could not understand why she and her group of workers were asked for their ID documents before entering some famed national attraction.DunnsRiverD1200840510NG The bottom line was that, as is common in many countries, nationals or residents are charged less than foreigners and visitors for visiting such sites, and ID is usually needed to proof eligibility for the lower price. The default price is the higher one. She found it biased and ridiculous, and got all huffy and hissy about it. Biased? Yes. Ridiculous? No. Nationals in some sense own such attractions and have in some sense already paid for the provision and upkeep of them, though taxes; foreign visitors have not. It could also be about perceived ability to pay higher prices, but that is dicier logic. A cynic could say it is an appropriate ‘nuisance tax’, with foreigner placing more stress on the resources than national. That one, too, is not for my plate today.

Similar discriminatory practices are often seen when it come to national provision of health care or education: for example, Britain is contemplating imposing higher charges on non-EU nationals to access the National Health Service. I wonder if the lady would think that ridiculous. Price discrimination is a normal part of business, and people who have not experienced it either don’t realize what’s going on or decide that in certain circumstances it is acceptable: student discounts, loyalty discounts, employee discounts, discounts for certain times, discounts for volume–the list is long.

The other letter was from an irate man, who could not understand why he and others could not get their taxpayer registration numbers (TRN) because the cards were signed by the former commissioner of the Inland Revenue Department, who is in some dispute with her employer, the government. As if she had some personal responsibility in a matter that should just be simple public administration. This seems about as idiotic as saying that bank notes bearing the signature of a former governor who’s in dispute with his employer, the central bank, are no longer legal tender. But, it’s also in the vein of “The lady who does refunds is on holiday and won’t be back for two weeks.”

These two instances struck chords elsewhere, judging by the fact that the latter letter was today published in the other main daily paper, and the former generated a lot of online comments, many in support of the policy.

I wonder if as much bile rises when people try to drive around Kingston. (I won’t attack yet how one tries to navigate the bus system, which appears to offer no route guidance to riders.) I say to people who say they are leery about dealing with seemingly Kamikaze drivers in Jamaica, that it’s a wonder there aren’t more road accidents due to people trying to crane their necks looking for road signs, which are either not there, or obliterated. Where do you turn at an intersection when the street signs are both blank. Given that residents in some areas have already taken on the task of repairing roads (and here they may have the responsibilities because the road is actually private though open to the public), why don’t some pick up some tins of Sherwin-Williams and get painting? I wonder if the tolerance for this is deeply ingrained in a society, which for the longest time had few road signs on major routes (let alone on something easy to maneuver as city streets). Many a trip towards Montego Bay was made more adventurous by having to remember the right turn to head over the hills north. My little daughter understands fully why we note landmarks as we drive round town–purple wall, orange house, etc. After all, we live in a land where directions are often of the form “Go till you reach the mango tree, then turn up till you cross old Mr. Thomas house with the broken fence…” That’s understandable in standard English, but wait till it comes at you in labrish.

I’m sure plenty of other examples are out there, and Jamaica needs to get into serious shape to be able to fend off the competition. I’d love to track some other instances that are more bilious, whether they are Jamaican or foreign.

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