The other day it happened again. At a nice grocery store in eastern Moscow, I realized that the lady working the cash register had rung up my tomatoes twice. When I pointed this out to her, she tried to deny it. Faced with the facts, she grudgingly annulled the extra purchase. As I was packing my groceries into my backpack, she issued a parting shot: “As if 59 rubles is that big of a deal – for a woman with such a chic wallet!” I stopped myself short of congratulating her for making my list of the Greatest Hits of Moscow’s Awesomely Rude Salespeople – but just barely so.
Yes, salespeople in Moscow tend to be rude. This is not exactly breaking news. In fact, this should probably be less of a big deal than people make it out to be. The sales culture in Paris is pretty similar to Moscow’s (though you still get more bang for your buck in Paris, if you pardon the Americanism) – and screaming about Parisian rudeness has never gotten anyone anywhere (or else it will get you featured in a withering essay by humorist David Sedaris – a fate worse than death).
Still, the conduct of Moscow’s worst retail employees is remarkable for two reasons.
First of all, they are very creative when it comes to insulting customers. Tomato Lady sniped at me while complimenting me on my wallet, and while that takes some skill, I’ve come to get used to such displays in my nearly three years of living in Moscow. Take the salesman at the Beeline store (Beeline being one of Russia’s biggest mobile operators, of course) who made me wait for nearly half an hour in order to ring up a purchase, all the while yukking it up with his girlfriend on the phone – when I complained, he retorted that “Pretty women shouldn’t frown so much.” It didn’t quite melt my heart, but I did find myself admiring his absolute and utter shamelessness.
Second of all, there is interesting gender politics often at play in Moscow’s shops. One time, back when you could still buy beer late at night in the city, before the laws changed, I walked into a small shop with a friend of mine who was looking to stock up on whatever mass-produced German beer he was craving at that moment. Although he was a regular, the saleslady was incredibly rude to him. My friend, who is far from a shrinking violet, jokingly confronted her about it. “I’m just being respectful!” she replied grandly. “Here you are with your girlfriend – I wouldn’t want her to get the wrong idea about us.” When he explained that I was not, in fact, his girlfriend, the saleslady instantly gave him an enormous smile. I could barely contain my laughter, while my friend became wistful.
“She’s just trying to brighten up her day while working at her crappy job,” he said while we waited outside for a cab. “That’s why she flirts with all of her male customers – well, the ones she likes, anyway. And gets all kinds of bitchy if she suspects that a regular customer has a girlfriend.”
These “genderized” insults were skillfully lampooned in the Nasha Rasha sketch comedy show – which, at one point, featured Mikhail Galustyan as a buxom waitress who terrorized her female clientele, comparing their boobs to “spaniel’s ears” all the while hitting on their boyfriends. After all, Russia is a country where few salespeople are encouraged to take pride in their jobs, or to build up a client base over time. People chalk that up to the anti-capitalist values instilled by the October Revolution and decades of Soviet rule, but I think nowadays, rapid urbanization is probably to blame, since it destroys people’s belief in community and accountability.
The reasoning is, “I’m going to do this crappy job for a few months, then I’ll probably drift into another crappy job, and so why shouldn’t I take it out on my customers, particularly if I am feeling competitive toward them?”
I suppose this is why, perhaps, I couldn’t even muster up the outrage to complain about Tomato Lady, or to tell her to quit being such a jerk.
Instead, I flashed a big grin, and said: “Thanks, I like my wallet too.” What could she say to that? Not a whole lot.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.