Friday, March 23, 2007

Charging and begging cultures

Money talks, and in money terms it is possible to look at the divide between West and East as a difference of the charging and the begging culture. It does not matter where you go in the global village, people will always be after your money. But the way they extract payment from you differs greatly. In the West they will exploit your needs and charge or tax you every step of the way. In the East they will exploit your compassion and pester you until you part with some cash.

The divide goes deep and shapes attitudes. In the East there is a service culture, which is why people from the West will go on holiday to Asia or Africa. People are trying to be overtly helpful in order to be tipped. In the West, on the other hand, people won't bother with being too helpful, since you are going to pay anyway, and after-sales customer service, unless separately paid for, has completely gone out of fashion.

Western advertising is all about creating demand. "Low cost" carriers like Ryanair, for example, will try and lure you to fly to exotic locations for under ten pounds. Once you are hooked they will add airport taxes, fuel surcharge, luggage surcharge, payment surcharge (indeed: you are charged for making payment by credit or debit card which are the only payment options on offer), and your cheap trip ends up costing more like a hundred pounds. If you end up getting thirsty or hungry enroute, you will have to fork out some extra money again. If you complain about delays or bad service, on the other hand, you just about get an acknowledgment letter.

Once you arrive, however, there is a total sea change: suddenly everybody is offering their helpful services free of charge in the hope that you will feel obliged to pay them later. If you don't, they know how to make you feel bad about it. How could you possibly take advantage of their generosity without matching it with your own. Outside the mosques, at congregational prayer times, vendors and beggars will gather, not to pray but in the hope that those who did will part with some spare change after having just begged God to grant their prayers. In a way, this is also market forces at work: large gatherings attract those who want to sell their wares or appeal to your kindness.

Human nature on the whole does not differ too much wherever you go. The ways it expresses itself, however, do. Many tourists to so-called developing countries stay in the cocoon of Western hotels and restaurants, fearing too close a contact with the local populace who might "rob" them. This same fear, too, keeps them willing victims of their own governments and large corporations who extract ever larger tax contributions and charges from them. When it comes down to having a choice it is probably wiser to prefer the beggar over the charger. Persistent as a beggar might be, it is much easier to ignore him than to ignore, for example, the taxman, and if inclined to be generous, the beggar is usually also happy with taking a lot less of your hard earned money.

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