Many years ago as a student in Switzerland, I approached a clerk and asked where to find something. The clerk looked up, paused, and said “Bonjour,” letting me know that human beings don’t just blurt out questions to one another. First, there is an acknowledgement of common humanity. This is signaled by a polite greeting. Bonjour always comes first. Then comes whatever question is at issue. Each time we cross the Atlantic my wife reminds me to set aside my American “cut to the chase,” “it’s just business,” “speed it up” attitude. This should be exchanged for the more Europe-appropriate etiquette that recognizes others, not just as instruments serving a particular function, but as fellow human beings. As a special reinforcement, the guidebook we brought with us this time even includes the following advice: “In shops, be prepared to say bonjour before asking what you want, then merci when you receive your change, and au revoir, bonne journée when you depart.”
Still, even armed with such reminders, old habits die hard. Several days ago, I found myself at an information desk in an Avignon bookstore. The person in front of me asked about a book and the clerk dutifully checked the store’s computer. Then, it was my turn. “What about this book, "I asked, giving author and title. Pause. A look right in the eye from the clerk: “Bonjour, Monsieur.” Ouch. I had done it again; violated a simple rule of courtesy. Clerks are persons, not just objects serving a function.
It’s a hard habit to break. After all, I’m from a culture where even clerks might find it annoying to waste their time with a greeting. Getting directly to the issue at hand is simply more convenient and efficient. Besides in the U.S. the customer is always right and it is the worker (bank teller, post office clerk, department store salesperson, check-out person) who is always to be complained about. Between the American shopping place where a polite greeting is not only expendable but a kind of time-wasting annoyance and the European one in which person-to-person recognition of common humanity is absolutely essential, there is a great gap. Habituated in the former, it’s hard to adjust to the latter.
The gap was not always so great. When I returned from my year as a student in Switzerland, my main concern was finding a summer job. First stop: the local factory and its personnel office. Today, “personnel” offices have all but disappeared. They have been replaced by something called the office of “human resources.” Iron ore is a resource. Lumber, tin, bauxite and granite are resources. Brought into a factory, they serve perfectly good instrumental functions. There is no need to spend any time greeting them. How did it happen, how did we allow it to happen, how exactly did persons come to be dropped into the category of resources? “Personnel,” is a perfectly fine word for the working men and women who make an enterprise function. It brings with it a special advantage, reminding us that we are dealing with persons. How do we define persons? Individuals who deserve a “good morning” or a “hello” as a first form of contact.