Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Customer Is Always Right

When I first started teaching, I thought all my students were nice, friendly people who were interested in having conversations with foreign folks and, sometimes, interested in improving their English skills. That's right, gaining better English skills is pretty much second to a paid social experience with a foreigner in many cases. Those of us who grew up in cultures that are cultural melting pots find it a little hard to fathom at times, but there is a lot of appeal for the Japanese in such opportunities. For many of them, it is their only chance to experience people from a different ethnic or cultural background on a regular basis.

Personally, I think it's pretty cool that they value this enough to pay for it, but you can be lulled into a false sense of feeling that students are your friends or at least want to be your friends if only you'd let them contact you outside of the confines of the classroom. A lot of teachers make a mistake when they first arrive in forgetting that their students are paying customers and, if anything goes amiss, this is going to be the first and foremost consideration on the part of the student. One of the biggest reasons not to socialize outside of class with students is that you can upset them unintentionally and they have the power to mess with your job if they choose to do so. That is not to say that many of them do or that many of them have problems with teachers. I only say that there is a risk.

This fact is something that I've never had to deal with directly as I have rarely socialized with students outside of class. I have, however, dealt with a similar situation more indirectly through my correspondence-based work both in the office and from home as a freelance worker. One of my more recent experiences brought the fact to mind once again that the student is a customer and not a friend nor even a friendly passing acquaintance.

Over the past two months, I've been doing copious numbers of calls in a 6-part telephone lesson course. During the course, a few students inevitably forget to call and then they have to do a make-up lesson one week after the last scheduled call. Last weekend, seventeen of them were scheduled to call from 4:30-6:45 pm in their last chance to finish. Two of them called at a blatantly incorrect time - 1:20 and 1:25. There was no doubt that they knew they were calling at the wrong time and might have been hoping to get the call over with so they could go out and enjoy their Saturday afternoon without having to bother to call me later. One of those two students was scheduled to call at 6:30 and never called back despite my reminding him of the correct time when he called earlier.

The next work day, I got an e-mail from one of the office workers at the company arranging things and they said the student called the office and said that he tried to call and I never answered the phone. The student doesn't know that I'm sitting in my own apartment taking calls. He believes I'm in an office and his lie might hold some credibility if I'm perhaps dashing out of the office to leave early and get home or if I could be distracted by other office work. It makes no sense whatsoever to claim I sat in my own home and let the phone ring and ring pointlessly, particularly when I don't get paid in full for calls that aren't completed. These facts are things he was not aware of when he lied.

Despite the fact that the office knows full well the circumstances of my work, they still approach me as if there is some mystery behind what has happened. They know the student has lied, but they treat the situation as if there might be some other explanation which lays responsibility at my feet. This is because the student is a customer and I'm an employee.

On this occasion, the fact that the student was lying was crystal clear. In the past, when I was working in the office, such lies were not so easily detected. We sat in cubicles and our phones had a switch that allowed us to turn them off. When off, the phone did not ring on our end and rang continuously for the caller on the other end. When the foreign staff worked in the office and sat at our desks and were therefore paid regardless of how many times we received calls, any time a student claimed they called and the phone was not answered was seen as a teacher turning off the phone at an inappropriate time and just slacking off. My home phone, of course, has no "off" switch.

At one point when I was working full-time in the office, a student who lied about when he called resulted in a wholesale change of our work schedule. We took calls between 5:00 and 7:00 pm and the last call was to be completed by 7:00 pm. We could turn the phone off and go home at 7:00 if the students did not call, but had to stay and complete a (5-minute) call if a student called right at the end at 6:59. All it took was for one person to claim that he called at 6:58 and there was no answer for the president to get apoplectic and state that we would henceforth have to leave the phones on until 7:05 and that our workday would now run from 11:05 to 7:05 (instead of 11:00-7:00) to reduce the chance that we wouldn't turn off the phones prematurely and shut out a student.

The thing that always angered me about these lies is that I was courteous, friendly, and kind to these students throughout multiple phone sessions and they had to have known that the lies they told would make me appear to be less than diligent. They either can reasonably conclude that they will get the teacher in trouble or so utterly self-involved that they don't give a thought to the consequences of accusing an employee of shirking her duty. The selfishness of such lies in the face of the kind treatment they were getting was very disheartening. There are no negative repercussions for the student aside from embarrassment at forgetting and rescheduling the call and quite potentially bad ones for the teacher who appears negligent.

So, it was a good reminder to me that students are customers, no matter how good your rapport is with them or how friendly they are when they speak to you. If it serves their interests, they will do whatever they are inclined to do at your expense. I'm pleased to say that this never happened to me in face-to-face teaching though I did witness it happen to a few other people. Let's just say that I won't be shocked if something ever does happen with one of my in the flesh students and that I will never make the mistake of viewing them as anything but customers.


Melanie Gray Augustin said...

That's awful that those students lied. It's strange within this culture, when they know that someone else will get into trouble.

I've been lucky in the past. My closest Japanese friends now, were formally my students when I was here many years ago.

Orchid64 said...

Actually, I don't find lying strange at all in any facet of Japanese life. It's a culture which openly sanctions lying as a means of achieving social harmony and has no moral prohibition against it. Mind you, Western cultures also permit what are deemed "white lies" (those that are told to protect others feelings), but the Christian code wags a finger at lies in general in the West. In Japan, lying to protect yourself isn't regarded as a serious ethical breach but merely a part of the tatamae and honne culture.

It may even be expected that such lies are going to be transparent to the recipient of them (in this case, my company) and regarded as the face-saving that they are on the part of the lie teller. However, it never has been that way with my former company, but that may be linked to distrust of the work ethic of the gaijin employee.

I'm glad you've made good friends with some of your students. I probably could be friends with mine if I tried (in fact, I know some would love that), but my experiences have me separating my personal and work life pretty strictly.

Thanks for commenting!