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The Change Romania Challenge: Part 1 - Common Courtesy

My wife recently returned from a trip to Copenhagen where she spent a week visiting a friend. Of all the countries in the world, very few are able, when I but hear the name, to induce in me the kind of glassy-eyed lassitude the parents of restless children can only dream about. Let's put it this way: if I had to choose between visiting a Scandinavian country or East Timor, I'd choose East Timor twice. I know it's not very open minded of me, and I certainly don't mean it as an insult to Scandinavians, but if I wanted to take a week to explore man-made perfection, then I'd just spend the entire time in the Sagrada Familia.

I just can't get past the cold and the overly expensive everything. And most of all, I can't get past the prejudice that it's not much more than a modern-day, Viking version of Canada. Unlike me, though, my wife is very drawn to Scandinavia.

As expected, she returned head over heels for the Nordic socialist haven of Danmark. Copenhagen was clean, the air was clean, the weather crisp but bearable, the people 'tough but nice', the architecture beautiful and well maintained, the streets airy and quiet. In short, it wasn't Romania.

She's been a bit listless for several days now, so I said, "Come on, love, you know it's not realistic to compare Romania to a place like Denmark."
"It's not even that," she replied, "I went into a convenience store to buy a bottle of water and the cashier looked me in the eyes and said, 'have a fantastic day'. Over here, they won't even look at you!" And she burst into tears. Large, sad, brokenhearted tears. I think that hurt me just as much as it did her.

What could I do or say to console her?

I've often referred to the 'fake niceness' in the West, epitomized by peppy, bright smiles devoid of actual warmth and empathy. In Toronto, "have a nice day" is nothing more than a jingle, like something you'd hear in a radio ad.

"Look," I said, "it's true many people here don't know the first thing about customer service, and maybe they even go out of their way to be inconsiderate, but on the other hand somebody who is nice, really and truly, actually means it! And by the way, after ten years in a place like Toronto - or even Copenhagen for that matter - when you got the same problems as everybody else, and you had a shitty day, and it's colder than hell frozen over, and you've got nobody to complain to because you're always supposed to pretend like life is just perfect, maybe 'have a fantastic day' is just another thing to piss you off."

I was trying to be helpful but it was half-hearted. She did have a point. I hugged her and said, "Maybe we just need to set better examples...all of us."

And we started brainstorming.

"You know, a big part of the problem is that people put up with this crap, in the first place." I said. Then I continued, thinking out loud, "Not only that, but they put up walls, they don't think of the human. We all want the same thing at the end of the day; if you make it easy on me, I'll make it easy on you. It's pretty basic, but for some reason people don't get it."

"But it is the basics!" My wife is saying, "Please and thank you, and a smile. Even if it's fake, it's something. They can't even do that."

"Maybe there should be an app that records everything in a store and rewards vendors for good behaviour....not that anyone would be interested in having everything recorded. Or they'd just find a way around it by repeating 'thank you' over and over to get points."

"That would probably help."

"Yeah, that's true - practice....
What about shame, though? Shame works in Romania. They keep saying 'vrem o tara ca afara*' but don't seem to realize it starts with behavior, not with highways. Maybe people can be shamed into better manners.
I could start talking to people in the UK, Canada, or the US and ask them for their definition of common courtesy; what they find acceptable and unacceptable when interacting in public, and then compare that to what actually goes on in Romania...then, I could publish the results and say, 'Oh look, it turns out everybody I spoke to in Canada thinks it's unacceptable to make a purchase in a store without some basic mutual acknowledgment between the customer and the cashier. You want a country like Canada, well, are you helping solve the problem or contributing to the problem?' How about that?" It was exciting to think about all the interesting feedback a discussion like this might generate.

"That would be interesting."

Well, we kind of stopped brainstorming after that, but I think we were able to frame the spirit of change within the discussion:
1. Are you solving a problem or contributing to it?
2. Are you willing to work on it?

It's all well and good to bitch and moan about idiots - you'll never escape them anyway - but there's also that saying, "If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you're the asshole."

Well, Romania, here we are, bitchin' about assholes all day...

Copenhagen, full of 'tough but nice' people.

What are your expectations when you interact with strangers? How important is common courtesy in your society? Leave a comment and don't forget to mention where you're from.

*we want a country like an outside country (something like that)


  1. I am from Denmark and i dream of moving to Romania... I have been reading and watching movies about the Targa Mures area and i am in love. But i have never tried to live outside Denmark and it is very hard for me to see how i can organise a move from Denmark to Romania... I got a steady income of 1.700 euro so i guess i could do ok in Romania?

    1. There are many beautiful areas in Romania if you're dreaming of the countryside. It's the ideal pastoral lifestyle, but coming from Denmark, you'd have a lot to get used to, society-wise - especially if you live in a small town. If you're on your own and your income is assured you'd be doing quite well for yourself, it's about 3/4 times the average salary here.

  2. You make many valid points and it's true there could be more courtesy there. I am from Dallas and there is more courtesy, but it's all rehearsed and room many fake smiles. In Bucharest when I get a smile it's genuine unless is a Gypsy. I do see many courtesies when I am there. People helping an old lady or a mama with pram on tramvei. A boy had a mild seizure on a bus and a girl giving him 100 lei because he couldn't afford his meds. Overall courtesy is still lacking and I really wouldn't want to see it improve to the point of being fake.

    1. While the basic service interactions here need sprucing up, I think the 'heart to heart' moments are more genuine and people are more affected by others around them, for better or worse. I agree with you, it wouldn't be a worthwhile trade.


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