If meeting a Latvian on the street is a bit like running the gauntlet, speaking to one on the phone is more like running into a brick wall. Usually you end up playing the role of both caller and receptionist. When you phone most companies in Latvia, you’ll end up having a conversation along these lines (pardon the pun):
Receptionist: Jā? (This ranges from bored to angry – either way, you’re not off to a good start)
Me: Uh, hi. Do you speak English?
Receptionist: (Patronising sigh) Of course.
Me: Is this ‘Happy to Help Communications’?
Me: OK. Is Janis there please?
Me: Do you know when he’ll be back?
Me: Right. Can I leave a message for him?
Me: Can you just tell him Linda called? I have a few questions about the document he sent me so I need to talk to him. Can you ask him to call me back? He has my number.
Receptionist: (amazingly quickly for someone who should have been writing that down) Jā.
Me: Great. Thank y…
As you stare at the dead phone in your hand, you wonder if Janis will ever get your message. But as there is no voice-mail in Latvia, you just have to take your chances and put your faith in the little ray of sunshine who took your message.
I suppose the upside of this approach to answering the phone is that there are probably very few sick days due to sore throats or laryngitis. Presumably, it also saves on staffing costs as the ‘Dial zero to speak to a customer service representative’ option is the last resort of only the truly desperate.
Carol Beer – Trained in Latvia?
Alternatively, you could try sending an email. The response will usually make you wonder why the recipient hates you so much but at least you’ll know they got your message. I’ve struggled through many a lesson of polite email English with my Latvian students and the only question they ever ask is ‘why?’.
They just don’t see why anybody would say ‘Would you mind doing…’ or ‘I was wondering if you could…if it’s no trouble…’, when you can just say ‘DO IT.’ It takes less time, there’s less confusion and of course, there’s the added bonus of the person on the receiving end curling up into a ball and having a little cry.
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a student. She had finished her course and done the exam but had missed the lesson with the results, feedback and certificates. The subject of the email was ‘I’m interested in test results’. I clicked on it expecting to see a ‘Sorry I missed the last lesson but I was wondering if you could tell me the results in an email. Kind regards, Ginta.’ or something like that. But no, ‘I’m interested in test results’ was the beginning and end of it. She hadn’t even written her name.
But optimistic Irish girl that I am, I sent her back a very nice email, telling her congratulations – she’d passed, giving her her result and informing her that she could pick up her certificate at the school any time that suited her. Expecting at the very least a ‘Thanks’, I was rather dismayed (but not altogether surprised) to receive absolutely nothing. It was like emailing into a black hole.
A rather worrying side effect of all this is that when somebody is nice to you, you feel pathetically grateful. If a shop assistant smiles at you or a customer service person offers to help you (things that would be considered normal or the bare minimum in any other country), your mind starts taking a little wander down crazy street. You picture yourself becoming facebook friends, going for drinks and chewing the fat (quite literally in Latvia), or maybe even going on a little trip together… And all because they said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’.
All things considered, maybe it’s better if they keep glaring and speaking in monosyllables… and I’ll try to keep what’s left of my marbles.