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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #190

I feel I should write something about Ukrainian standards of customer service, as part of my narrative about the Ukrainian national personality. However I am not sure what quite to say. On the one hand, standards of service in Ukraine are not as good as they might be. But on the other hand that is (or can be) completely unfair. The picture is more complex than at first it appears. Although we all have had experiences of poor customer service in Ukraine by western standards, there are various reasons why this might be. Firstly the country is at war and arguably customer service is not a priority. Secondly people are distressed and they might find it difficult to focus on being nice and responsive to customers when they are worrying about the welfare of their family and loved ones. Thirdly Ukraine is only now emerging from a post-Soviet smog in which the importance of customer service in the context of a free market economy in the provision of services was barely understood.

But the most important point is that Ukrainians are getting there. There can be no stronger point than this: Ukrainians are learning to smile at strangers, and in particular in the context of customer relationships. They are learning ever more effectively to sell, and this is particularly the case amongst the enthusiastic youth of today, learning English and seeking to fit into a western future. In the vast majority of hospitality outlets I have entered, whether they be restaurants, hotels, bars or cafes, you are met by young Ukrainians who are trying to be as helpful as they can be. Even if they may be embarrassed by the language barrier, they will usually try. In most major cities across Ukraine, I have found young people working in the hospitality trade who have at least enough English to serve you. Do not confuse or confound them; remember that for a lot of Ukrainians learning English is a very recent thing. It is only in the last ten years that most Ukrainians have realised that learning English is far more important than learning Russian, and it takes a lot of time for this change to filter through.

Back when I first came to Ukraine almost 30 years ago, virtually nobody spoke a word of English. There were no Ukrainian phrasebooks (or at least I never found one). There was no Google Translate either - there were no mobile telephones. Instead you had to learn the language in order to travel, and the language you learned to get around the former Soviet states was Russian. I hopped around Ukraine in my fragmented Russian, this being the only way of getting anywhere. The Ukrainian language was virtually unheard of outside Ukraine; in the West barely anyone even knew that there was a Ukrainian language separate from the Russian language. That is because the Soviet Union had kept its doors closed to foreigners and there was little information escaping Soviet Ukraine about the fact that this country had a distinctive identity, language and culture.

Since then so much has changed. Ukrainians are now understood near-universally to be quite different people from the Russians - even those Ukrainians whose first language is Russian. The country’s own emblems, crests, flag and images are ubiquitous across the West. The next step in Ukraine’s cultural transformation is to embrace English as a lingua franca rather than Russian. Even Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose first language at school in the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih was Russian, has learned English well enough to give a televised address in English although his English is not perfect. He is now advancing a law that in effect requires government servants to learn English.

As English becomes ever more pervasive throughout Ukraine, as it has done in Poland and other former Soviet satellite states, the quality of customer service will no doubt improve. Ukrainians are genuinely embarrassed to speak English and it is a huge culture shock to them suddenly to have all these foreigners around them, in particular in the city of Lviv, who expect them to speak fluently in English. So speak slowly and simply and have patience. The shock to Ukraine’s social system of suddenly having to adapt to English as the country makes her way on the gradual western European path is profound but Ukrainians are finding time to learn English - with the assistance of generous foreign volunteers - at the same time as engaging in a momentous wartime struggle. It is an extraordinary feat to behold.

At the same time, it is imperative that foreigners present in Ukraine during this critical time of war, suffering and privation take an understanding and respectful attitude towards Ukrainians and understand that Ukrainians have a lot of things on their minds and they are learning much too. In particular it is imperative that foreigners do not go round wantonly breaking the law or inciting Ukrainians to do so. We foreigners should respect the curfews and we should not offer people bribes and we should not do all these things that are associated with the old-fashioned Ukraine of Leonid Kuchma and his various dirty successors. We foreigners are at all times Emissaries of the West, and Ukrainians will look to us and our behaviours as indices of how things really are in the West and the values we seek to uphold and that Ukrainians are fighting for with blood on our behalves. We must in our actions and words demonstrate that our social system is superior, and that it is based upon equal respect for all, individual liberty, human rights and respect for the law.

So the next time you are frustrated with Ukrainian customer service, do stay calm. I must emphasise that, like the extremely patient staff in the post office who persevered with my luggage the other days even though their computer had gone down - or the wonderful staff in my local bar who deal with aggressive and drunk foreigners who should not be acting in such ways - this is not a British youths’ stag night; it is a war zone - a great deal of Ukrainian customer service is excellent. But when it is not, breathe in deeply, stay calm, remember that people remember your attitudes and behaviour, and try to understand that you are bound to stand as a paragon of the values that we in the west are asking the Ukrainian people to embrace and indeed fight for.


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