First impressions can set the tone, affect an experience and impact potential outcomes. A bad first impression can be difficult to overcome. And though we have all be told not to judge a book by its cover, we tend to make quick assessments of people, places and things—which ultimately formulate our first impression.
We are less than twelve hours into our first visit to South Africa, and yes—right or wrong—I have formulated a preliminary impression based on our very limited experiences and what we have heard and read. Granted … a little sleep deprivation may have also had an impact on our initial impression, but here are few things that we noticed on our first day among South Africans.
People seem to be very direct. Small talk is not welcomed and interactions are limited to only what is necessary to complete the required task.
For instance, when clearing customs this morning, the agent managed to complete the whole transaction without saying a single word to either Kevin or myself! He gave us several very gruff looks, repeatedly banged random keys on the keyboard and pointed a few times before stamping our passports and allowing us to pass.
It’s All In The Tone
The delivery of a message is almost as important as the content contained in the message. So far, we have picked up on some underlying tones during interactions that have left me with a slightly unfavorable first impression.
On our inbound flight from Perth to Cape Town, both Kevin and I were surprised by the demeanor of the flight attendants. The flight attendant that served us was very abrupt. It was almost as though providing us with a drink or meal was an inconvenience to her. She seemed to say all the right things, however, the underlying tone when asking if we needed anything seemed a bit condescending.
We come from a culture where making customers happy is important—especially in the service industry. Granted, good customer service is relative to your geography, but our expectations for certain brands are pretty high and we’ve found those expectations fall short in other parts of the world … they don’t seem to have a world-wide standard.
One interaction at the rental car counter today was less than favorable. The representative at the counter appeared to be annoyed by our presence. When we did not instantaneously provide her with a requested document or respond to her question immediately she became impatient, snarky and even rude. The overall interaction left a very unfavorable taste in my mouth, especially considering the tenure and frequency with which I have rented from this particular company.
Likewise, the check in process at one of our favorite hotel chains, did not quite live up to my expectations. Granted, we attempted to check in early, but the process required me to follow up on a handful of things multiple times. It left me questioning the competency of the staff and the overall level of service.
We are also used to people making direct eye contact during transactions, and when people do not, we tend to interpret it as a non-verbal queue that a person may not be honest or up front. Within our first few interactions we observed that people tended to stare beyond us or look away. I am guessing that it’s probably a difference in cultures, however it left me feeling a little unsettled, especially when I am already cautious knowing South Africa’s reputation for high crime rates.
The Rainbow Nation?
Many of these first encounters with South Africa caught us off guard. They differed from our norms and from the norms of other countries we’ve visited. Thailand, for example provided a completely opposite first impression—people were very friendly and lived up to their reputation of the “land of a thousand smiles.” South Africa is said to be “The Rainbow Nation” but so far hasn’t shown us very positive colors. Like a rainbow, though, we’re hopeful that our first impression will change … we really want to like it here.
At the end of the day, there was one bright spot. We did have one or two exchanges that were friendly, informative and helpful. And that went a long way in making us more comfortable in our new surroundings.
So, although my initial impression has not been favorable, we also appreciate that the underlying history, experiences and cultures are different. I realize that part of our journey is experiencing life in other countries, appreciating the differences and learning to accept and adapt to new surroundings. Here’s to overcoming first impressions, opening our minds and attempting to embrace our new surroundings over the next five weeks!