In the wee hours of the morning in my home in Southern California, I got off the phone with a young man from the office of the Icelandic tax authority, Ríkisskattstjóri. When I expressed to him my gratitude for his extraordinary flexibility and willingness to help me find a solution to my issue promptly, he said, “We are here to be of service.” What a statement!
It reminds me of the numerous times in the more than twenty plus years since I moved from Iceland to the United States that I have had to seek the services of various official institutions in my home country, either by phone or in person when visiting.
I have observed a stark contrast in attitude and communication styles when dealing with my fellow Icelanders versus employees in similar institutions in the United States! Moreover, please know that I am generalizing here since there have been, thankfully, many precious exceptions. However, I cannot remember coming away from a service call with an institution in America feeling as though the person I was speaking with and I were on the same team, and together we are finding a solution to my issue. On this side of the Atlantic, it more often than not feels as though the customer service people think they are doing me a big favor, and I do not sense much eagerness to assist and find a solution.
What is missing is a sense of respect, and that the Icelander’s focus on “being of service.” The creative feeling of being at your job to problem-solve and help others — not just to get off the phone as quickly as possible and on to your next coffee break.
I remember distinctly what Madam Leila Costigan hammered into us, her students at the Henlow Grange Health Farm & Spa, in Bedfordshire, England, in the 1970s. The Estonian-born beauty specialist, with whom I was training to become an esthetician, always warned, “Don’t ever forget that the customer is always the “KING.” She made it clear that we were there to be of service.
This topic relates to a Facebook discussion about the respect that I had recently with two friends and colleagues — the Norwegian Kristin Engvig, the founder and CEO of Women’s International Networking, living in Switzerland, and the German-born Sylvia Becker-Hill, founder of Über Women International, living close to me in Southern California.
We had all been watching a “Happiness Life Hacks” video called “From Japan With Love,” which offered the message that in Japan it is ingrained in the culture to be mindful of others and their needs instead of thinking only of oneself. The Japanese people are cognizant of making life more comfortable and pleasant for others, and they always serve with a bow and a smile.
Sylvia rightfully pointed out that what we are discussing is the hierarchy of values in the various cultures of the world. In Japan, respect is very high on the cultural value scale. In Germany, where Sylvia grew up, fairness and solidarity are high on the national value hierarchy, and respect aligns closely with that. In Iceland “being of service” and gender equality rank high as cultural values. In Norway, as in neighboring Iceland, equality ranks high on the list, as do openness, informality, and yes, respect.
After living in the United States for nearly twelve years where freedom is high on the value chain, Sylvia has found the “boundary-less expression of the individual” and the survival of the fittest valued above all else in her new homeland. It is unfortunate that we have to scroll far down on the US cultural value list to find both service and respect.
Happiness research shows that for people to find meaning and fulfillment in their work, they must get out of their little worlds and tune into something bigger than themselves. That is one of the hallmarks of “Conscious Leadership,” which I facilitate and promote as akin to “Servant Leadership.” The practice of kindness is a part of Conscious Leadership and Servant Leadership, and is also much needed in the workplace, as I found out by talking to corporate professionals — see my article, “The Outcry for Kindness in the Workplace.”
So, how developed is your sense of service? What is the cultural norm regarding service in your country?
Are you aware of your service mindset? How would you want to be served? And how do you serve others?
Moreover, what can you do today, wherever you live, to strengthen the cultural values that are most important to you?
I do hope “being of service” is one of the values dear to your heart.
Runa Bouius is an accomplished serial entrepreneur from Iceland and a Conscious Leadership catalyst. As a speaker, author, facilitator, and mentor to entrepreneurs, business leaders, and people of influence — she is on the vanguard of the new business paradigm thinking, the creation of better workplaces and growing the visionary, next-generation leaders. Runa sits on a number of advisory boards and is a contributor to a number of publishing platforms. In addition to Runa’s companies in Reykjavik, Iceland, she co-founded the Conscious Leader Network, the Conscious Capitalism LA Chapter, and the TOGETHER! Network.
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Originally published at medium.com