What happens in Vegas

...is cheer and courtesy, says Sally Feldman, and we could do with a little here

January 27, 2011

"Good God, for a moment I thought the dancing fountains were the volcano!" exclaimed my companion with mild alarm as we strolled down the Strip.

It's the kind of comment that only makes perfect sense when you've already passed the golden sphinx at the Luxor hotel, peered up at the Eiffel Tower outside the Paris Las Vegas and witnessed the mock sea battle taking place at the Treasure Island complex. This, after all, is Las Vegas. And as we'd come to realise, from the moment our taxi dropped us underneath a canopy of Renaissance paintings at the entrance to The Venetian hotel, you must never ask "why?" in this town, since the answer can only ever be "because it's Vegas".

But the one constant element here is the utter charm and cheerfulness of everyone you encounter, from the Elvis lookalike trying to entice you into the Circus Circus casino to the pirate, complete with live parrot on his shoulder, guiding you across the 16-lane highway to Caesars Palace. And this seemingly effortless courtesy is offered most joyfully of all by those serving you: the hotel receptionist, the cashier in the casino, the waiters, the room service butler.

It's as if everyone in Las Vegas whose job is to serve has at least a master's in hospitality management, so delighted are they to welcome you, help you and make you feel wonderful. Carole the concierge spent hours making sure we were not only booked in the nicest restaurant, but she also demanded special treatment for her very special clients; Peggy at the airline checkout was so warm and loving that it was as if she, personally, were responsible for our safe journey. Even the guy flipping hamburgers in a deserted bar would smile, banter and wish you a nice day.

This obsessive attention to hospitality is what University of Surrey sociologist Rachel Lara Cohen describes as "emotional labour" - whereby being friendly is part of the job, rather than merely a pleasant adjunct to it.

In an article published in May 2010 in The Sociological Review, she examines "worker-client relationships in hairstyling". Hairdressers, she reveals, practise "performance acting" expertly all day because they're embedded in a market relationship in which they will be paid only if they keep others happy.

It doesn't sound like the most rewarding existence: standing up all day making banal conversation while clipping, shampooing and inhaling toxic products. And yet, in almost all surveys assessing the happiness of different professions, hairdressers come out at or near the top. Of course there's the satisfaction of their craft, the endless pleasure in designing and creating. But in Cohen's research among some 50 salon owners and stylists, the main element they stressed was their relationship with clients. So could it be that this performance of charm has the effect of actually making the actors truly happier, truly nicer?

While we were enchanted by all the blandishments and relentless jollity in Las Vegas, others are rather more wary of professional gushers. And sometimes this mistrust will be shared by a whole nation. Russians, for example, are not given to smiling gratuitously.

"A constant polite smile is considered a 'smile on duty' in Russia and shows people's insincerity, closedness and unwillingness to show real feelings," according to Iosif A. Sternin, a professor of philology at Voronezh State University. Russians, he argues, see the Western habit of smiling as bogus. In particular, he explains, "serving staff have never smiled in Russia. Since early times clerks, salesmen, waiters and servants have been polite and courteous but never smiling."

They wouldn't last 10 minutes in Las Vegas. And that ursine surliness is such a drain on the tourist trade that hotel staff in Russia these days have to go on training courses to jolly up a bit. Admittedly, Russian people have always had plenty to be miserable about. But maybe they wouldn't feel quite so tragic if they were less grudging with their grins.

Sadly, that's also true of UK universities, which do, let's face it, tend towards a somewhat Siberian solemnity. It's partly because a certain gravity is deemed suitable for the high-minded. But there's also an understandable revulsion against regarding students as "customers" when they should be embraced as equal partners in the quest for knowledge. Don't be too obsequious or helpful, or they'll forget what a privilege it is to be at this august seat of learning - and start treating the place like a hotel.

And like others working in the public sector, many academics feel that the modern shift towards client-facing servitude goes against the grain. So smiling or being even the tiniest bit helpful is seen as a sign of surrender to market values.

Of course there are lovely, happy, life-enhancing people in all the academies. But the general ambience that permeates our campuses can hardly be described as hospitable. What you're more likely to find are dismissive porters, confusing notices, busy switchboards and quite a few vague academics so bound up in higher thoughts that they forget to say "good morning".

Yes, I know we've got even more to worry about than usual as the whole nature of what we do faces ever more looming onslaught. But that's all the more reason to be a bit nicer to everyone: light up the corridors with smiles, answer those pesky nagging students with concerned warmth, say hello by name to even the surliest security guard, ask the complaining parent if there's anything else you can do for her, fill in your annual monitoring form with irrepressible vitality, hug when you're giving feedback. Wish each other a nice day.

It may not make the mess - I mean, challenge - go away, but universities still need to be a bit less Gulag, and a lot more Circus Circus.

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