I remember the first time I tried to buy a ticket for public transport in Poland. I knew that you got them from those Ruch kiosks, and I knew what to say – I had the expression ‘bilet poproszę‘ (one ticket please) written on a scrap of paper in my pocket. There was a couple of minutes until the next bus. All set. What could possibly go wrong?
I approached the kiosk and the first thing I noticed was that the only opening was a small window at waist height. To communicate with the person inside, I had to bend forwards and turn my head sideways. Immediately I was in a submissive position, bent over like a servant as if I were begging at the feet of a king.
Through the small window, I could see someone inside. Although I couldn’t see his face, I could see the torso and hands of a man, who was sitting next to a heater and reading a magazine. It felt like I was interrupting.
I cleared my throat and reading from my scrap of paper, I said ‘bilet poproszę‘
Instantly, the man inside the kiosk said ‘nie ma‘.
It was at this moment that I froze.
Coming from the UK, I am used to a high-level of politeness in customer service. If something is not available, then the shop assistant will say something like ‘sorry we don’t have any tickets, but if you go 100 yards down the street, you can find a shop that sells them.’ In this way, even if a shop assistant can’t help you, they at least pretend to.
What’s more, the shop assistant will usually respond by apologising and give the impression of regretting the fact that they can’t provide a customer with what they need. In the tone of their voice, you’ll also be able to hear a sense of empathy as if they were stepping into your shoes and feeling the same disappointment as the customer.
So I paused…waiting for the man in the kiosk to let me know where else I could get a ticket or when they would be back in stock. Anything to help me on my way.
But the guy in the kiosk said nothing…he just continued reading the magazine.
And the way he had said ‘nie ma‘… responding even before I’d finished saying ‘poproszę’. His response lasted a fraction of a second and it didn’t seem that he was going to put any more effort into the interaction. There was no empathy in his tone, no sense of regret. It was a simple statement of fact – there weren’t any tickets.
Yet my brain was so used to a familiar cultural pattern that I didn’t know what to do when the pattern was broken. I was stuck for a moment in a state of disbelief.
The bus arrived, some passengers got out, other got on. The bus departed.
But I was still at the kiosk, frozen in a bent-over position …slowly realising that I wasn’t going to get an apology, empathy, advice….and definitely not a ticket.
- I laughed when I later found out that ‘Ruch‘ means ‘movement‘…I associated it with being stuck and going nowhere.
- I once wondered what it would be like if Ruch ran a project to train kiosk workers in customer service. Would the service be transformed? Probably not. Instead of a two-word reply, he’d just try and sell me stuff I didn’t need…only more politely.
- Actually, a kiosk is a good place for a beginner to test their language skills in real world. You get a short, clear response to your questions – kiosk workers don’t tend to bamboozle you with long sentences or complex expressions.
- Ruch has modernised their kiosks and in the most modern ones you can actually make eye contact with the person inside…without bending over. Opposite my apartment we even have a Ruch ‘salon handlowy‘…that’s what they call a kiosk you can walk three paces into.
- Since that day I’ve had quite a few experiences in Poland in which the level of customer service I received didn’t live up to my expectations. I must say that I prefer the British style of interacting with customers. Customer service in the UK is polite and empathetic – very much focused on the relationship with the customer…but sometimes it’s also false. ‘Sorry, we don’t have any tickets, maybe if you try up the street?,’ is a just a polite way of saying ‘no, go somewhere else‘.
- I hear lots of complaints about the quality of customer service in Poland, but there is one thing about it that I do appreciate…it’s honest. If there aren’t any tickets, then they’ll tell you that. No sugarcoating, no sales pitch, no pretense.